This week, in taxis across Bangkok, drivers all hold forth on the World Cup and where the smart money should go. They all want to talk about the “world game”, particularly when they stumble upon an Australian in the back seat. The Aussie team are, one fellow told me with a grin, a “real danger for the big boys”. We’ll see about that but, regardless of their eventual placing, he said that he liked their odds.
The current high-profile government sanctioned crack-down on betting has attracted a great deal of Thai and foreign press coverage. With football betting (and, in fact, all gambling) illegal in Thailand, this is a key moment for morals enforcement. For broader context, there is a useful summary discussing Pasuk Pongpaichit’s research on gambling in Thailand. She is a real authority on this topic and its place in the wider Thai “grey” economy.
One article today noted that a survey has extrapolated that approximately 3.6 million Thais will gamble on World Cup matches. According to the survey, only 10.39 per cent (or under 400,000) are seriously trying to make money from betting. Everybody else is just in it for fun.
While many Thais love to simply watch and cheer, even that can have serious risks (note that this link includes a graphic image and is not appropriate for sensitive readers).
A common theme in many of these articles about the social ills emerging from the football is that monks should not bet, or cheer. Some monks have even been criticised for missing their morning alms rounds because they have been busy watching matches.
For all of these portrayals of gambling’s malvolent social force, and the thousands of words produced, the taxi-drivers, a pretty good barometer in Bangkok, just want to talk about winners and scores and losers and odds and numbers. They love the numbers, whether it’s the economics of driving a cab or the reasons why Harry Kewell is having a slow start to his World Cup campaign.
They want to know, how much is he paid? What does his girlfriend do for a living? What was his GPA in high school? Is this his best Premier League season ever? Numbers, numbers, numbers… The World Cup Finals, with its 8 groups, 32 teams and billions of fans, is a tournament of numbers, even for people who do not bet.
Its popularity in Thailand must be partially explained this way.