Soccer gambling thrives in Cambodian border town

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POIPET, CAMBODIA (AP) - 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.”

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EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is part of a six-month, multiformat AP examination of how organized crime is corrupting soccer through match-fixing.

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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.

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