A Chinese soccer fan could barely watch as Portugal striker Cristiano Ronaldo lined up his penalty kick in the finely balanced Euro 2016 group match against Austria.
The man identified by his surname Li, from the eastern city of Hangzhou, had every reason to be nervous: he had bet tens of thousands of yuan on Portugal to win.
There are so many gamblers, groups and platforms during the European Championships though, that I think it’s really hard to find all of themCHINESE GAMBLER
With 10 minutes to go in the game in Paris, the Real Madrid star Ronaldo hit the post, the game ended in a draw, and Li lost the money he had bet using Tencent Holdings’ popular messaging app WeChat.
Amid a surge of Chinese interest in global soccer, one side-effect has been a record surge in illegal gambling online, prompting multimillion-dollar busts by police on betting rings, and tech giants such as Tencent and Alibaba Group Holding cracking down on gambling activity on their apps.
“There are so many gamblers, groups and platforms during the European Championships though, that I think it’s really hard to find all of them,” said Li, who asked only to use his surname as most gambling online in China is illegal.
Li said he used a private chat group on WeChat, where most of the people making bets were friends.
Winnings were distributed via bank transfer, Alibaba-linked Alipay, WeChat or “red packets”, digital versions of traditional envelopes stuffed with cash.
If we find suspicious accounts, then we are going to freeze the account directly. It only takes a few hours from the first to the last stepMIRANDA SHEK, SPOKESWOMAN OF ANT FINANCIAL, WHICH OPERATES ALIPAY
In the run-up to the Uefa European Soccer Championship final in Paris next Sunday, Chinese police say they have seen a surge in illegal gambling online.
A total of 236 suspects had been caught on the mainland for illegal soccer gambling during the current tournament, Xinhua quoted the Ministry of Public Security as saying on Sunday.
More than 28 million yuan (HK$32 million) was confiscated or frozen in cases involving overseas gambling websites, it reported.
In a single bust last week, police in southern Guangdong arrested 147 people and froze funds worth nearly 100 million yuan.
Alibaba – which owns the South China Morning Post – and Tencent acknowledge the issue and have anti-gambling systems in place to spot illegal behaviour.
Ant Financial, the Alibaba affiliate which operates Alipay, has a three-tiered system to spot gambling, with computer systems analysing user behaviour and a line of human checks.
“If we find suspicious accounts, then we are going to freeze the account directly,” spokeswoman Miranda Shek said “It only takes a few hours from the first to the last step,” she said, adding the firm was looking to add more anti-gambling staff.
Reiterating a previous statement, Tencent said it was doing more to stamp out gambling on its platforms such as WeChat, including restricting groups suspected of gambling behaviour and punishing individual account holders.
It said it had put limits on more than 8,000 WeChat groups, and had limited the payment and “red packet” capabilities on more than 6,000 accounts.
A soccer investment boom in China has helped propel interest in the game.
Chinese firms have invested in overseas clubs, player agencies and media rights firms, and global soccer stars have moved to China in multimillion-dollar deals.
The big-spending Chinese Super League outfit Shanghai SIPG broke the Chinese record transfer mark in June after spending a reported €€55 million (HK$473.5 million) on Brazil international striker Hulk.
“With [Euro 2016] everyone’s betting on soccer, but also over the last couple of years China’s soccer market has developed rapidly. Big investments and star names create a real lure,” said Hu Naijun, an assistant professor at the University of Science and Technology Beijing.
The organiser of an online gambling group, who gave his name only as Bao, said he and four other organisers had a pot of 5 million yuan and that dozens of people would join for each game.
“In one night there will be millions placed in bets,” he said, adding that it had become a lucrative business.
“For the final, we’ll probably go to Macau or Hong Kong and spend the whole week in the presidential suite.”
Li said he was still backing Portugal, who are through to the semi-finals, for Euro 2016 glory.
“I often can’t watch, my heart just can’t take it, I feel nervous at every chance,” he said. “Especially when Ronaldo missed the penalty – I almost passed out.”