In China, football is becoming more than just a popular sport. For some, it is also becoming a gambling addiction.
"We lost our business, sold our house and now are in huge debt," said Wang Ningfang, whose husband, Liu Chunyang, lost 1.4 million yuan ($205,880) betting on football games online. "Our lives are now a total mess."
Liu and his wife once ran an Internet cafe in Tianjin. The business earned several thousand yuan per day. Their family was close. Life was good. But then everything changed in 2006 when the FIFA World Cup was held.
"He was tempted by some vicious friends to be online during the games that year and lost 300,000 yuan just in the first week," Wang said, fighting back tears.
Liu said he worried the activity was turning into an addiction.
"I was afraid and somewhat addicted as well," he said. "The only thing that occupied my mind at that time was to win the money back."
Without telling his wife, Liu borrowed usury of 300,000 yuan from a gambling operator on the condition he repay the loan in three months. The interest rate was 120,000 yuan.
Still Liu continued to bet and continued to lose. Slowly he became trapped in debt, owing more than one million yuan to the illegal operator by the end of 2006.
Only when Liu had nothing left, did he realize what he had done. The gambling operator took over Liu's Internet cafe, and Liu and his wife were forced to pay back the rest. The operator threatened to harm their 13-year-old child if the money was not given back, the couple said.
Theirs is but one of a number of tragedies that have occurred because of gambling associated with football games, said Ren Jie, head of the China Anti-Football Gambling Alliance.
"Since 2006, there have been at least 48 football gamblers who have committed suicide," he said yesterday.
Ren, once a millionaire, lost his two cars and his property from sports gambling debt in 2006. He now runs a small fish restaurant in northern Beijing.
The Ministry of Public Security launched a nationwide crackdown on football gambling and match-fixing in November. A number of former players, soccer officials and club officials have been detained. The high-profile campaign claims to be thorough in its investigation of any related scandals.
Yet in the eyes of Liu and Wang, the government failed to take enough action to close illegal gambling operators who organized the online betting.
"Didn't they deserve punishment?" Wang said.