There were plenty of reasons for the 2014 World Cup to be a dud in China. For one thing, the Chinese men’s national team once again failed to qualify for the main event, leaving Chinese football fans without a clear rooting interest. In addition, with Brazil hosting this year’s tournament, all of the matches are being played during the middle of the night in China, with the earliest games kicking off at midnight and the latest games beginning at 6 a.m..
Yet despite these factors, millions of fans in China are eagerly following the World Cup action, even if it mean staying up all night. Some of the more rabid fans are even buying fake “sick leave notes” online to help them get off work after a long night of cheering on the action in Brazil. In 2010, when the World Cup was held in South Africa (with a six hour time difference instead of 12), an average of 17.5 million Chinese watched each game live, more than any other country in the world.
Given the awkward time difference, that number is likely to dip this year, but perhaps not by much. On Thursday, a few hours before the kick-off of a crucial game between the U.S. and Germany, that match was the most popular topic on Sina Weibo, with over 260,000 searches for #美国对战德国# (#USvsGermany#). The topic page for the game had over 4.5 million views. And that’s just one game out of the 48 played in the first round of the tournament, from June 12 to June 26.
Chinese President Xi Jinping, well known as a soccer fan, might also get in on the action. According to People’s Daily, he has been officially invited to join Brazilian President Dilma Rouseff for the championship World Cup match. The final game will take place on July 13, only a few days before the BRICS conference opens in Fortaleza, Brazil. All the BRICS country leaders were invited to attend the final match, but Xi’s invitation is especially interesting — there are rumors that Xi requested that the date of the BRICS summit be moved so that he would be able to attend the World Cup final. The rumor is based in part on the fact that the past five BRICS summits have been held in late March or early April, while this year’s version will take place in mid-July.
However, there’s a downside to the fervent interest the World Cup stirs up in China — an increase in illegal gambling. Estimates indicate that illegal sports betting in China is worth close to $100 billion each year, and this year’s World Cup is certainly taking its share of that market. After a police bust, a single betting ring stands accused of taking a whopping $645 million in bets. That operation was based out of Macau, long known as China’s haven for legal and illegal gambling alike.
The immense amounts of money involved have also taken a human toll. According to Chinese media reports, two people have committed suicide after incurring heavy losses in World Cup betting. One, a college student in Guangdong, lost over $3,000; the other, a mother in Hainan, lost $16,000. In response to incidents like these, China’s urban police forces have been sending out social media messages warning against gambling. For gamblers, “the World Cup can turn into a world of sorrow” a local Shanghai police bureau warned, playing on the identical pronunciations of “cup” and “sorrow” in Chinese.
Yet even as China discourages illegal betting, the state provides a legal option. Provinces are allowed to run “lotteries,” with a portion of the proceeds going to charities. Last year, according to Xinhua, betting through these official sports lotteries was worth over $20 billion. This year, with high-profile internet firms like Alibaba and Tencent making it easy for Chinese to place bets through their mobile phones, World Cup lottery bets have already reached four billion RMB ($642 million). For comparison, in 2010, the total for the entire World Cup was only 2.3 billion RMB ($370 million). By the end of this year’s tournament, lottery ticket sales are expected to top 10 billion RMB ($1.6 billion).
With so much interest (for better and for worse) in a World Cup held halfway around the world, with no Chinese team participating, it’s not hard to imagine how huge the World Cup will be should China fulfill Xi Jinping’s dream of hosting the tournament.