Organised crime bets on a winner

2002-05-23 07:46

Hong Kong - Organised crime is expecting a big bonus from Asia's first soccer World Cup in the form of billions of dollars' worth of illegal bets.

Internet betting shops, backroom bookmakers and government-run sports lotteries across Asia are lining up for their share of the take from the 64-match tournament which begins a week on Friday.

But as much as 90 percent of the money bet by Asians will be through illegal sources, with only 10 percent from licensed gambling concessions and offshore Internet operators, creating a windfall for organised crime.

"This is the first World Cup in Asia. The level of demand will be unprecedented," said Michael Carlton, chief executive of Victor Chandler Worldwide, Britain's largest independent bookmakers. "It will be in the billions of (US) dollars."

In Britain, bookmakers expect to attract 200 million pounds ($292 million) in bets on the games in Japan and South Korea, more than twice the amount spent on the last tournament in France, betting shop operators Ladbrokes said.

Some $110 million is likely to be spent in Singapore, one of the few Asian countries to have legalised gambling on soccer results.

The World Cup features China for the first time, drawing the attention of its 1.3 billion people and prompting the government to take its first steps toward legal gambling by launching a soccer lottery to draw funds away from illegal odds-makers.

Soccer is fast coming of age in Asia, thanks largely to satellite television. Weekend league games from Britain, Spain and Germany slot nicely into Asia's prime bar hours, making big-screen soccer broadcasts a must for any pub wanting to draw a crowd.

Manchester United, probably the most popular club in the region, have built up a huge following with a pub and souvenir shop in Singapore and top player David Beckham immortalised in a gold statue in a temple outside Bangkok. While the sport and certainly gambling have mass appeal in Asia, not all governments are content to let soccer betting flourish.

Law reforms

In gambling-mad Hong Kong, legislators voted on Wednesday to ban wagers with offshore bookmakers and Internet gambling sites, in part to stop the siphoning away of hundreds of millions of dollars in gambling revenues from the territory's sole licensed horse racing and lottery operator, the Hong Kong Jockey Club.

The club says it loses some $10.26 billion a year to unauthorised bookmakers, as much as it takes legally in annual turnover.

Some observers view the new law as a first step towards creating a licensed, Hong Kong-based, soccer betting system possibly run by the Jockey Club.

But Internet gambling chains say it will simply drive soccer betting further underground, leaving the profits to triads, other organised crime syndicates and loan sharks.

Carlton estimates that one in seven Hong Kong males between 18 and 55, or some 300 000 people, will bet a total of more than $100 million on the World Cup, mostly illegally.

For their part, Hong Kong police have adopted a policy of zero tolerance towards illegal bookmaking and earlier this month arrested 21 people and seized gambling slips worth $770 000 as part of their crackdown.

They are exchanging information with their counterparts in Macau and in China's Guangdong province to clamp down on triads and sophisticated betting syndicates.

Malaysian police also are targeting Hong Kong bookmakers who have set up shop in the mainly Moslem country and in January they arrested six Hong Kong residents believed to be part of a gambling syndicate and seized betting slips worth some $79,000.

Bets in Malaysian coffee shops or pubs can run up to $2.630 per match and loan sharks offer easy money to gambling addicts.

"They never force you to take the money but do you expect a cat to ignore the fish being dangled in front of it?" said a Malaysian social activist. "The number of loan defaulters increases dramatically during the football season."

Free broadcasts

A survey by Bangkok's Assumption University released in March estimated that some 400 000 of Thailand's 63 million population would lay bets worth around $216.8 million on World Cup matches.

National police chief Sant Sarutanond caused a public outcry in March when he proposed delaying live telecasts of World Cup games by half an hour to foil illegal gambling. He later said the idea was meant as a joke.

Macau, which subsists on gambling and has the region's most sophisticated licensed soccer betting operation - tycoon Stanley Ho's - plans to take the opposite tack, making live broadcasts of all 64 World Cup matches free on local television with commentaries in both Cantonese and Portuguese.

China, having experienced rapid recent wealth creation and an insatiable demand for gambling opportunities, last year started a soccer pool lottery system in which punters guess the winners of 13 European league matches.

According to the government's lottery research centre, the market for lotteries in China will reach $10.12 billion by 2010, a five-fold increase on last year's sales.

Shops selling the two-yuan tickets have sprung up in major cities and the state-run China Daily newspaper says the Soccer Lottery has produced more than 40 millionaires.

Much of this is aimed at drawing funds away from illegal gambling channels, which have been blamed for a recent match-fixing scandal in China's domestic professional league.

However, an even bigger longshot may be China itself winning the Cup. Current odds on British bookmakers William Hill's website place the team as a 750-to-one shot.

The favourites are reigning world and European champions France at 10-3 with Argentina on nine-to-two.