World Cup fever – for football or gambling?

July 03, 2018 13:57
For the first time since 1938, Germany failed to reach the quarter-finals after their loss to South Korea. Photo: Reuters

The headlines of many newspapers last Thursday was not about the new measures to ease the housing crisis or investors' reaction to the Xiaomi share issue – it was South Korea's win over champions Germany in the World Cup.

It was big news – the first time since 1938 that one of the world’s strongest soccer nations had not reached the quarter-finals – and it was knocked out by a country from Asia, the weakest continent in the sport.

For fans in Hong Kong, the result provoked interest rather than passion – except among the bookmakers and those who bet on Germany. The winners of the last World Cup in 2014, they were one of the favorites; many people bet on them to win again – so their defeat was a windfall for the bookies.

“Many people watch the games because they are betting on them,” said Leung Man-yip, a Liverpool fan. “You can bet on the result, on who will score and in which half. That is what makes the games breathless.”

This makes Hong Kong – and Chinese – fans different to the hundreds of thousands who have spent thousands of dollars to travel to Russia to support their team. They root for their own country and for their enemies to lose. Argentinians, for example, want their team to win; if not, they will root for anyone who can stop Brazil and Uruguay from winning. Poles cheer for Poland – and any team which can beat Russia and Germany. Serbians support their country – and anyone who can beat Croatia.

Hong Kong people have no country to support at the World Cup. Last year China was eliminated in a group containing Qatar, Syria, Uzbekistan, Iran and South Korea; the last two qualified for the finals. The countries taking part which are closest to Hong Kong are Japan and South Korea. Hong Kong people feel sympathy for them as fellow Asians, but not so strongly.

Most fans in Hong Kong back a club in England or another European league; so some support the same country in international competitions.

“An Asian team will never win the World Cup,” said Leung. “We Asians do not have the strength and physique you need. How can our build compete with you gweilos (鬼佬)?"

For fans here, this has been an ideal World Cup. Most games are played between 2000 and 0200 local time. After work, fans can enjoy dinner or drinks and late-night snacks at one of the hundreds of bars and restaurants showing the games live and where the atmosphere is close to that in the stadium itself.

Or, if they have paid the subscription fee to Now Television, they can watch the games on the silver screen at home.

To bet on the World Cup, the only legal option is to go to the Jockey Club. In Macau, you can bet at certain casinos.

If you want better odds, you can bet through “off-course betting syndicates”; these are illegal centers that have sprung up all over the city and in Shenzhen and Dongguan. You open an online account, with your own password, and deposit a sum in the account; or you can place bets by telephone, also using a password. The account is settled each week.

These centers handle tens of millions of dollars in business, so much in fact that, as during previous World Cups, the revenue of the casinos in Macau falls by as much 20 percent during the competition.

On June 13, the eve of the tournament, police in the city and in Guangdong broke up a cross-border syndicate. They arrested 50 people and seized HK$78 million in betting records. They found centers in Hung Hom, Sha Tin and Sham Shui Po.

On the night of June 21, they arrested two suspected bookmakers and HK$2.4 million in soccer betting records in a flat in Tai Po. Officers found four mobile phones and HK$10,000 in cash, and a notebook with bets on the World Cup valued at HK$500,000. The call center had moved to different places to avoid police detection.

These huge sums reflect the love of Hong Kong people to gamble and a willingness to risk confiscation of their money and nine months in prison for the sake of the better odds the illegal bookmakers offer over the Jockey Club.

But that is not the only reason to watch.

“For those of us who do not gamble, the World Cup is a feast,” said Leung. “We can see the world’s best players compete against each other in matches concentrated over a month. Isn’t that a good way to pass the summer?”

– Contact us at [email protected]


A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.