These days I don’t stray too far into betting on sports, but there was an opportunity a couple of years ago that I couldn’t pass up. England were under 7/1 on Betfair and vying with Argentina to be third favourites to win the 2010 World Cup. Only Spain and Brazil were more highly rated in bookmakers’ lists.
I like watching football, though don’t profess to be a particular expert about it. I would never feel like I had an edge betting against others more knowledgeable about the game than I. But I had watched England disappoint in major championships all my life, and I was confident that their actual chances of winning the competition were much smaller than the odds indicated.
England were that short a price because Betfair, like so many other bookmakers, are a British company with a largely British clientele. And that clientele was deluding itself that this time, the England team could go all the way. I got stuck into ‘laying’ England (that is, betting against them) and their disastrous campaign never caused me too much concern before their controversial exit to Germany in the last 16.
Which brings me to Engelbert Humperdinck, currently vying for third favouritism in some (British) bookmakers’ lists, and available to back at 14.5 and lay at 16 in the Betfair win market to win Eurovision this year.
It’s fair to say that the announcement that the 75-year-old singer would be representing the UK got a mixed reaction. Opinion ranged from the idea that this was an inspired, surprise choice of a household name who has sold millions of records, to embarrassment that someone whose heyday was so long ago would be representing a country with such a vibrant contemporary music scene.
My approach was more open-minded. I wanted to wait and see what the song was like and how he would deliver it. When the video for ‘Love Will Set You Free’ was released to showcase the song, I felt that embarrassment at least had been averted. This is a nicely-produced number with a simple, effective melodic line alongside a melancholic guitar motif. It’s highly appropriate for the crooner that Humperdinck is. It has an understated feel I’m rather drawn to.
Nonetheless, there are a couple of problems I have with the song. There’s no instrumental section in the middle eight; what we have is three minutes of Humperdinck’s crooning. This means there’s no pause for breath either for the singer or the audience.
Instead, Humperdinck tries to give us two special moments, a big note which introduces the key change and then the even bigger climactic note. This feels like one big moment too many and it’s effect is to slightly spoil the understated quality of the first half. As a result, this attempt to make the song more interesting only makes it feel more standard and thus duller.
However, the generally positive reaction (and publicity garnered) helped bring its odds down in bookmakers lists. But it felt like the kind of song that needed a good draw to have any significant impact with televoters. Then we had the draw for the automatic finalists, and it transpired that the UK will be the first song of the 26 performed on the night.
Yet ‘Love Will Set You Free’ has continued to contract in bookmakers’ lists. Which is amazing because, as we noted in our initial analysis of the draw, opening the show is not easy, and doing so with an understated ballad is a huge disadvantage to any chances Humperdinck might have had.
I used the example of last year’s Finnish performer, Paradise Oskar, who dropped from third with televoters in his semi-final to 21st with that constituency given the opening slot in the final. Emma made the point that a nervous performance on the Saturday may also have hampered his showing. Nick D pointed out, however, that the curtain raiser for the previous four years had been slower numbers and ‘all also did significantly worse than they might have expected on the pedigree and quality of the songs’.
These included Azerbaijan in 2010, when Safura performing ‘Drip Drop’, a hyped ante-post favourite, had managed to win the semi-final televote. But in the final, it was overtaken by three of the countries it had beaten in that poll, and dropped to fifth. This was at least the best position that an opening song has managed in the televote era, even in a semi-final. However, that was with the aid of Azerbaijan’s many allies, which let us not forget, is not a luxury afforded the United Kingdom.
The last couple of years have also seen phone lines open from the start of the first song, but in 2012 this changes back to the original system of the public only being able to vote after the last number has finished. This means that Humperdinck needs to have made enough of an impression for televoters to pick up their phones to vote for him 25 songs later.
The British representative has his age as a way of standing out from the crowd, though of course even in this respect he has been overshadowed by the Russian Babushki, who will be performing later than him if they qualify for the final.
You could argue that Malta’s Chiara showed back in 2005 that a ballad performed early on (she was third in the running order) from a country lacking allies could score a respectable finish, managing second place. But this was a year with few slow songs and very short on quality at all. Unfortunately, the return of the juries seems to have encouraged a proliferation of ballads this year, and 2012 looks like a far more competitive contest than 2005.
All in all, I believe that the draw destroys any chances of ‘Love Will Set You Free’ having any impact with televoters.
Of course, juries should theoretically be less swayed by the draw, and what Humperdinck’s song offers is a strong, slow song that could score well with this constituency. Let’s hope the presentation remains as simple as the highly effective video, which will help its chances here. However, it looks like there will be plenty of competition for the jury vote. And given how difficult it will be for the UK song to score well with televoters, its finishing position on the night – including any hope of a top ten finish – will be highly dependent on those juries.
In Humperdinck’s favour, juries seemed to be impressed the last time the UK had a big industry name on stage, when Andrew Lloyd Webber played the piano as Jade Ewen sung ‘My Time’ back in 2009. Third place with juries helped lift it to fifth overall, though an ideal draw had also allowed it a respectable tenth with televoters. But given Humperdinck’s draw and the competition he will be up against, I can’t see him managing such a result, either with juries or with televoters. Therefore, I think a top five placing is highly unlikely and a top ten finish will be quite a stretch too.
So, once again I’m faced with the prospect of British bookmakers offering restrictive odds about a home side success. The return from laying Hump in the win market at current odds would be only around 6%, though there should be more attractive potential returns to consider once the top four market and top ten market take shape on Betfair. Is this another opportunity to lay my own country that’s too good to miss? Let us know what you think in the comments section below.