Late nights, gambling and a high called football

  • Other Sport
  • Saturday, 19 Jun 2004

BANGKOK: From snowy Himalayan valleys to steaming tropical cities, Asians are losing a lot of sleep – and money – as Euro 2004 fever infects a continent where soccer is passionately followed if not always brilliantly played. 

Given time differences, Asian workers, and sometimes their bosses, are arriving at offices in a groggy state, or not at all, after watching games into the early hours. Family quarrels over Euro 2004 viewing are also being reported. 

About one-third of the 3,357 people who responded to a survey in the Chinese city of Shanghai said they planned to ask for time off from work to see at least some of the games. Another 19% said they were buying bigger television sets to better enjoy the soccer fiesta. 

Traders on Bursa Malaysia, the national stock exchange, say many people are taking a less than normal interest in price movements. “Bleary-eyed from Euro 2004 fixtures, investors are just staying out of the market,” one Kuala Lumpur-based trader noted. 

But working overtime are bookies cashing in on Asia's endemic gambling habits, as well as law enforcement officials trying to snare them during the three weeks of tournament play. 

The Soccer Gambling Suppression Centre, set up by Bangkok's police force, said yesterday that 37 bookies have been arrested in Thailand's capital over the past week, along with 347 gamblers. Police estimate illegal cash flow from the tournament at 240 million baht (US$5.8 million). 

Police in Hong Kong nabbed nine unauthorised bookmakers, seizing HK$3.24 million (US$415,000) worth of betting slips in raids on Thursday. In Shanghai, they busted a major online soccer gambling ring that had collected 20 million yuan (US$2.4 million) in bets, newspapers reported. 

But such hits are believed to be just the tip of an Asian gambling iceberg. 

“My wife has told me not to play but I'm addicted to it like a drug. Many people are also addicted to it like I am although we rarely win,” said Nguon Chuon, a 57-year-old clothing seller, after placing a legal US$10 bet in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. 

Betting on foreign soccer teams has become routine for many in Cambodia, where 45% of the population lives on US$1 a day. 

Before the European Championships kicked off in Portugal, Asia's soccer governing body urged Asian governments to legalise betting on soccer matches, saying it would accelerate the sport's progress in the region. 

“Football is now developing into an industry and it generates a great amount of revenue,” said Peter Velappan, secretary-general of the Asian Football Confederation. 

“Legalised betting will be one of the commercial activities to generate income for football development.” 

In Tibet, the soccer-mad community turned out in greater numbers to a recent local soccer tournament than for an annual gathering attended by their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. 

But others in India, where cricket rules supreme, are shrugging their shoulders. Australians, more attuned to rugby, are also not exhibiting great interest. 

“Neither have I been watching the matches, nor do I have any idea when the matches are scheduled or what teams are in the fray,” said Amit Dixit, a 29-year-old magazine writer in the Indian capital of New Delhi. “I can't stand the game. I don't see why people get so frenzied about a sport that is so inelegant.” – AP  

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