POIPET -Soccer (Football) is falling under a cloud of suspicion as never before, sullied by a multibillion-dollar web of match-fixing that is corrupting increasingly larger parts of the world’s most popular sport.
Internet betting, emboldened criminal gangs and even the economic downturn have created conditions that make soccer — or football, as the sport is called around the world — a lucrative target.
Known as “the beautiful game” for its grace, athleticism and traditions of fair play, soccer is under threat of becoming a dirty game.
Soccer betting is illegal in Cambodia, but visitors to this seedy frontier town wouldn’t know it.
In the rundown market where the smell of incense mixes with rotting garbage, betting goes on 24 hours a day inside shiny, glass-fronted parlors emblazoned with photos of famous European soccer players. Fidgety men break from lines of computers displaying odds to place bets with cashiers on matches around the world, from the obscure leagues of India and New Zealand to the giants of Europe.
“We can’t always pronounce the teams we are betting on, but that doesn’t matter,” said Sampoath Pererra, a Sri Lankan palm oil worker who has made his life in Poipet, a two-street town sandwiched between the Cambodian and Thai borders. “The important thing is we can recognize them.”
Poipet has a long association with gambling. In the early 1990s, the government allowed casinos to be built there, and the gaudy, mostly threadbare venues continue to attract thousands of customers from Thailand, where all forms of gambling are illegal.
Soccer bookmakers — also illegal in most Asian countries — have sprung up inside the casinos and in nearby streets.
The cash bets placed with the bookies in Poipet and the many more via websites operating out of the town form part of a billion-dollar unregulated industry in Asia that is at the heart of match-fixing. To spend a weekend there is to see up close the region’s obsession with soccer gambling, as well as some of the challenges facing those who seek to keep the sport clean.
While bets of upward of $50,000 on a single game are not uncommon in Asia, most wagers are much smaller, reflecting average incomes in a region that remains mostly poor. On a weekend in late November, there were few big bettors in Poipet, little glamour and many tales of lives taken over by gambling.
In the snazziest of the town’s bookmakers, called footballbet.com, a gap-toothed Singaporean who gave his name only as Michael needed several late goals and turnarounds to win his $25 wager on a series of five matches.
As the final whistle approached on several matches in England’s Premier League, his hope slowly turned to disappointment.
He fingered his betting slips in the manner of gamblers around the world, and a 6-year-old boy whom he referred to as his son bounded from his lap to the floor of the bookmakers, playing in the cigarette ash left behind.
Authorities turn a blind eye to the bookmakers, even those who operate outside the casinos, which are run by powerful tycoons with links to the corruption-riddled government in Phnom Penh, the capital.
In September, police arrested 100 Indonesians in Phnom Penh for illegally running a soccer betting site from two houses in the city.
One bookmaker’s Malaysian manager, who refused to give his name because of the illegal nature of his business, conceded that the operation was running “on borrowed time.”
The websites operating in the town employ Indonesians, Thais and other nationalities on telephone help lines and computer chat rooms to assist people setting up accounts in their home countries.
Rooms in hotels and casinos are rented out to these operators, giving the town something of a gold rush atmosphere.
Poipet is a town where few would choose to live unless they were making money, or have gambling addictions to feed.
In the daytime, trucks carrying squealing pigs roll through town, as do vehicles full of foreign tourists on their way to the ruins of Angkor Wat, Cambodia’s iconic 12th century temple.
By night, touts on motorbikes patrol the main drag offering women and drugs, while children beg. A stinking, rubbish-clogged river dissects the town.
Unlicensed Asian betting sites and bookmakers like those in Poipet function as unofficial agents of the larger Asian betting operators, most of them based in the Philippines. Unlike in regulated markets, syndicates are able to place bets anonymously, with no cash trail to follow or betting patterns to examine if fixing suspicions emerge, said David Forrest, an applied economist who specializes in sports gambling at the University of Salford Business School in Britain.
“Asia is the dominant betting market, even though the sport is European. And most criminals, whether they come from Asia or Europe, will place the bets in Asia because of the non-regulated sector of that market,” he said. “It’s a huge market, and easy to hide money.”
Bookmakers and bettors alike in Poipet are aware that some matches are fixed, but such information is closely held by the syndicates and doesn’t reach ordinary gamblers. The Premier League is regarded as fix-proof, but the Italian, Russian and smaller Asian leagues are suspect. The gamblers say it doesn’t affect their betting.