Odds are on illegal betting during Cup

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Odds are on illegal betting during Cup

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 2010 World Cup.

While diehard football fans are eagerly awaiting the world’s biggest football tourney with anticipation, some are looking forward to the World Cup for whole different reasons. Tens of millions of dollars are expected to be wagered over the monthlong 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 organized crime syndicates, and more still on online gambling Web sites, 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 big as 20 billion ringgit ($6.2 billion) per annum, huge sums will be wagered during the tournament. Police have set up a special task force to monitor online gambling activities.

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

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 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 Web sites, 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) on online gambling during 2006, the last time the World Cup was held. This amounted to about 2 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 $1 billion 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, underground 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 ($6.8 million). Another country where betting is legal is Australia, with the national team offered at 81-1 to win the tournament.

Haydn Lane of the online bookmaker Sportsbet’s said there was more interest this time round, with bets starting in December as soon as the draw was announced.

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