In China, the World Cup coverage on state-run television kicks off about 30 to 40 minutes after the whistle has blown in Frankfurt, Munich or Kaiserslautern marking the start of the game. One possible explanation: Beijing's censors are buying time so they can be on the safe side if anti-Chinese demonstrators infiltrate the German World Cup stadiums. If members of the Falun Gong unfurl protest banners, Beijing will still have time to cut the footage, making sure it doesn't make its way into the homes of the millions of Chinese who have their eyes glued to their television sets.
When it comes to football fever, China is right up there with the rest of the world. Although their own team didn't qualify to make the trip to Germany, the Chinese are still feverishly joining the global World Cup celebrations. The state television channel is broadcasting every match, with football commentators introducing the teams, the players and analyzing their every move. Beijing's newspapers have been remarkably quick in providing up-to-date match coverage. The final game of the day doesn't even start until 3 a.m. local time -- long after most newspapers traditionally go to the printer -- but that hasn't stopped Beijing sports journalists from keeping residents here completely informed about the World Cup, and with surprising aplomb.
Despite the late game starts, residents in the Chinese capital are able to enjoy detailed reports and analysis along with their breakfast of rice soup. The New Beijing News features a daily, 16-page insert titled "Goals and Beer." The caption accompanying a photo last week of Brazilian goal scorer Kaka read: "Heaven, look at me." Page three featured a spread of three sex Brazilian beauties and page five offered a poetic homage to Ronaldinho: "The feet of little Ronaldo (meaning Ronaldinho) could force a thread through the eye of a needle." And the headline for the Germany vs. Poland match reads: "Ballake (Ballack) is back, Bolofusiji (Borowski) is out."
In terms of football, China is still very much a developing country - but that does little to dampen the enthusiasm of fans. Old or young, the Chinese and their children are donning the jerseys of the German and Brazilian teams. Young girls gush over Klinsmann, Beckham, Totti and Ronaldinho.
In Beijing, local restaurants and bars are also learning how to convert this enthusiasm into profits. In Sanlitun, a street crowded with pubs, bars are offering live broadcasts of the games -- some even have big screens. Each night, dozens of fans gather in front of "Three Point Three" to watch the games on a giant screen above the department store. Next to them, everyday life continues: cranes and cement mixers roar in two excavation pits. The locals may be watching Germany's success on a massive screen, but the non-stop construction all around them is a reminder that in just two years, the 2008 Summer Olympics will kick off here.
A goldmine for bookies
But there's more at play here than mere enthusiasm for football. With its games in faraway, exotic Germany, the World Cup also provides the Chinese here with a chance to spice up their lives a bit. The state-run lottery is no longer as lucrative as it was once regarded to be, and during the World Cup, some have turned to placing bets with illegal bookies. Last week, Shanghai police warned they would crackdown on illicit betting in teas houses and pubs. Anyone caught gambling risks 15 days in jail and a 3,000 yuan (€300) fine.
Police in the former British crown colony of Hong Kong are also trying to put a stop to illegal bookies. Experts estimate that they bring in as much as 50 to 60 billion Hong Kong dollars (€5.1-6.1 billion) each year in illicit revenues. Horse racing remains the most popular betting sport, but football's popularity is rising. And prior to the World Cup kickoff, police from Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia met to coordinate their action against the region's gangs of illegal bookmakers.
The Hong Kong Jockey Club -- which donates part of its profits to build hospitals, daycare centers and retirement homes -- has tried to make the best of the situation by offering their its football bets. There are few limits to the kinds of bets that can be made. One can bet on final scores, the number of goals in a game, the most successful scorer of the tournament or the player who will score first. A bet on a goal by German defender Arne Friedrich in the game against Poland would yield a return of 52 times the original wager; in the case of striker Miroslav Klose, it would be just four times. Brazil is the odds-on favorite to become World Champion, beating out Germany and Argentina.