Football: World Cup betting big business in Asia

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The Independent Online

People like a flutter and betting on football matches is big business, but in parts of Asia it is illegal and police across the region are cracking down ahead of the World Cup.

Tens of millions of dollars is expected to be wagered over the month-long football festival in South Africa on everything from who will win, to who scores the first goal or gets booked.

A large slice of this will change hands at market stalls or in underground gambling dens, often run by organised crime syndicates, and more still on online gambling websites, with thousands now available.

In Muslim Malaysia, where European football is hugely popular, sports betting was made legal this month to the ire of conservative Islamists, but the licences will not be ready in time for the World Cup.

With the Malaysian illegal sports betting market thought to be as much as 20 billion ringgit per annum (6.2 billion US), huge sums will be wagered during the tournament.

Police have set up a special taskforce to monitor online gambling activities.

"We will conduct raids on any outlet offering online betting. Such raids will be conducted regularly," Zainuddin Yaakob, a local police chief in southern Johor state said.

Zainuddin said from January to early April some 1,700 computers were seized and 32 people arrested following raids in the state capital Johor Baharu.

In South Korea, government-listed firm Sports Toto holds the only license for betting on sports events, including the World Cup, handing over 25 percent of sales to the government.

But illegal activities still take place, particularly online.

"Illegal betting has been done mainly through private websites, and big money changes hands," a culture and sports ministry official said, without giving an estimate.

"In cooperation with police, the government has cracked down on illegal betting sites, but it has been hard to eradicate them because of technical problems. Some sites are run through servers abroad."

Some of Asia's biggest betters are in China where underground rings are rife.

According to Titan Sports Weekly, the nation spent up to 500 billion yuan (73 billion dollars) on online gambling during 2006, the last time the World Cup was held. This amounted to about two percent of China's GDP.

But over the last six months, police have embarked on a huge crackdown after corruption in the game was blown wide open with the arrest of China Football Association chief Nan Yong.

Betting is also illegal in India, except for horse-racing, but it is flourishing, with the industry worth an estimated one billion US dollars a year.

India may not have qualified for the World Cup, but the betting market will still be buzzing.

Rajan Bhagat, from the Delhi police, said bookies were picked up every other day, but admitted that gambling never really stops.

"We do keep a watch at special events like the World Cup and will do the same this time too," he said, but declined to reveal the measures being adopted to curb illegal betting. "It is not easy to get rid of the menace."

Since 2003, Hong Kong punters have been able to bet on football matches through the Hong Kong Jockey Club.

Nevertheless, undergound rings continue to thrive with illicit bookies offering better odds and spreads, as well as extending credit to punters, local reports say.

In September, Hong Kong police arrested six people for illegal bookmaking and money-laundering involving more than 53 million Hong Kong dollars.

Another country where betting is legal is Australia, with the national team offered at 81-1 to win the tournament.

Sportsbet.com.au's Haydn Lane said there was more interest this time round, with bets starting in December as soon as the draw was announced.

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