As the World Cup brings joy to fans, it brings misery to online gamblers

Behind the greatest sporting show on Earth is a trail of greed and exploitation

Kevin McKenna Opinion

After a while, you find yourself getting accustomed to the absurd chauvinism of English commentators at World Cups. The BBC and ITV seem to vie with each other every four years to provide the most asinine and uninformed coverage of this global extravaganza. There are 32 nations competing at Russia 2018, many with curious and uplifting stories to tell about their paths to the final stages of this tournament. Each of them brings travelling circuses of their supporters, who convey the impression that they are delighted simply to be competing here.

Over the course of more than four weeks, they provide a rich source of stories and anecdotes. They have overcome social challenges and survived wars and bring with them their traditions and folk tales. But you won’t find any of their stories on the BBC or ITV, which specialise in bringing us a Brexit view of the World Cup. Our national broadcasters have spent tens of millions of pounds to bring this massive event to our television screens, much of it being trousered by an assortment of semi-literate and ill-informed former pros who simply want to talk about the darts competition at the England training camp. No matter how dramatic and skilful any of these games have been, the half-time analysis must always include a lengthy and meaningless update from England’s training camp. As each World Cup gets bigger and increasingly more colourful and vibrant, BBC and ITV are impervious to it. They manage to achieve something that must take a lot of effort: to ensure that they contribute little to our broader understanding of this global, cultural event.

After the first two weeks though, your senses gradually adjust to this daily intake of mince and you are softly anaesthetised by the time the tournament reaches the business end and the stars start to come out to play. When the final comes along, you are even making jolly little spread bets with your chums, predicting the earliest mention of 1966 and how many risible connections Clive Tyldesley can make to England. “And look, there’s Gabriel Jesus. His grandfather once worked on a merchant ship that berthed at Hull who finished 18th in the Championship last season.” And you sometimes reproach yourself for having got so exercised about it all in the first place.

The commentators are merely a mild irritant, like a bad end-of-the-pier act at Blackpool during childhood holidays: we’d be a little lost without them. The endless adverts for online gambling products that have wrapped themselves around ITV’s coverage are much more than an irritant. They grow up alongside the football coverage, choking it like weeds. We are never free of them and we know that several thousand poor families are imperilled by them. These are the ones whose lives have been disfigured by problem gambling, the hidden scourge that you can’t identify until it has already hollowed out the person that you love.

There are now dozens of online gambling firms spending fortunes in an obscene and frenzied race to get at their chief prey: working-class men on low wages who love football. Even more insidious than big cockney Ray Winstone telling us slyly to “have a bang on that” is the message that comes at the end of the endless procession of gambling adverts beseeching punters to “please gamble responsibly”. It’s nothing more than a cruel joke that subliminally says: “Please gamble…”

They know that their target audience is sitting at home with a few beers or in a pub and at their most vulnerable. Smartphone technology means they can be caught in the midst of those moments of euphoria when their side scores. These firms knowingly feed addiction or create new generations of addicts.

Last week, the Gambling Commission fined 32Red £2m after it missed more than 20 incidents indicating one customer was a problem gambler. These included an occasion when the punter immediately restaked his seven-figure winnings. The sums involved suggest that this was either a money-laundering operation or a high-roller addict. There was nothing to suggest that further down the financial scale this occurs much more often but escapes scrutiny because of the smaller sums.

The football authorities that reach out to these firms for sponsorship and the clubs who allow them to desecrate the club colours with their garish logos are just as culpable in spreading this disease as the gambling conglomerates. They should be ashamed. They are knowingly giving licence to these companies to continue the process of destroying the lives of generations of their most loyal supporters. Adverts for alcohol and cigarettes have long been banned in sport but gambling is allowed to thrive despite being just as toxic as the other two.

A little progress was made in the fight against the exploitative practices of the gambling industry when Westminster announced a cap on the maximum stake in fixed odds betting terminals of £2. The Scottish government, while backing the measure, has not yet used its devolved powers to control the number of machines in new betting shops. Holyrood last year moved to curb the number of new betting shops opening in empty shop spaces in the middle of disadvantaged town centres. The gambling industry always finds a way, though, usually with the connivance of football clubs that pretend to be socially concerned: Glasgow, the city most affected by the evil of fixed odds betting terminals, is also home to Scotland’s two biggest football clubs. Celtic and Rangers are both sponsored by major betting firms.

 Kevin McKenna is an Observer columnist

Source: The Guardian

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