You’d have thought that with the imminent publication of the British government’s White Paper on gambling and the current public interest in – and criticism of – that business, English football clubs would have taken a step back in their toxic relationship with bookmakers. At least for a while.
By Philippe Auclair, with Andy Brown, Jack Kerr and Steve Menary
Well, think again.
Over the past few weeks, Everton have linked up with Stake.com; Wolves have signed a sleeve sponsorship deal with 12bet; and now, Manchester City (who’d discreetly ditched their previous betting partner Marathonbet because of that company’s links with Russia) have taken in 8Xbet as their ‘Asian betting partner’.
Josimar has been investigating the opaque world of so-called ‘Asian-facing’ online betting operators and their links with football clubs, particularly English ones, over the past eleven months; a world in which no questions are asked, as the answers would be deeply embarrassing to all concerned. As reported by the United Nations On Drugs And Crime (UNODC) and in a recent study by the Asian Racing Federation, over 60 percent of betting (a business worth close to three billion US dollars per annum) is illegal. It is also accepted that those illegal operators, whose ultimate owners hide behind a myriad of stooges and offshore companies, are controlled by criminal underworld organisations, Chinese triads foremost among them. It couldn’t be otherwise: gambling on sports events is strictly prohibited – and is even considered a criminal offence – in the same Asian countries in which Premier League ‘Asian betting partners’ recruit almost all of their customers. In other words, football clubs who partner with those websites are de facto enablers of criminal activities on the other side of the world.
It is of course perfectly legal for a Manchester City to sign a commercial deal with a company such as 8Xbet: it is only a matter of ticking a few boxes to satisfy the regulations in place in the United Kingdom. How 8Xbet then exploits the partnership to advertise its brand in countries where it is against the law is entirely up to them. It is perfectly legal, yes. But it is also deeply problematic, though you wouldn’t guess it by reading the statement which was published on Manchester City’s website on 5 July. It read:
“Tom Boyle, Vice-President, Global Partnerships Marketing and Operations, City Football Group, said: “We are delighted to welcome 8Xbet as a regional partner of Manchester City today. 8Xbet shares our commitment to entertaining and providing great experiences to customers and fans alike. The new partnership provides the club an opportunity to further increase our presence across the region and we look forward to working with 8Xbet.”
Ryan Li, Founder of 8Xbet, said: “It is a huge honour to partner with Manchester City – we are delighted to have secured our first-ever football club partnership with one of the biggest teams in the world. As Premier League Champions in four of the last five years, City have a huge following in Asia, and we are excited to work together to bring exclusive content to fans in the region.“
That statement also contained information about the English champion’s new partner that was either inaccurate or misleading. 8Xbet, it said, was ‘founded in 2018’. A quick search into the history of the domain name showed that the date was, in fact, 2020.
The same statement also claims that 8XBet is “licensed and regulated in Great Britain by the Gambling Commission”. It is not. 8XBet is a brand name which was recently added to the portfolio of a ‘White Label’ provider which Josimar readers will be familiar with, Isle-of-Man-based TGP Europe.
It is no surprise that the UK version of the 8Xbet website should be “coming your way soon”, as it is customary for the British iterations of Asian-facing operators to remain at that development stage, like larvae which never burst from their chrysalis. As they target an overwhelmingly Asian market, it makes no sense for them to be active in the United Kingdom; but this does not prevent them from claiming – falsely – that they are ‘licensed’ there. It is not them who are licensed. It is the ‘white label’ company, TGP Europe in 8Xbet’s case, the proxy which has given a precious foothold on British soil and, with it, a veneer of respectability as well as the right to advertise on the LED boards which are to be found on the periphery of all Premier League pitches. The relationship between TGP Europe and 8Xbet seems to be a recent one, by the way, as the company was not yet listed as partner on TGP Europe’s own website at the time of writing. For more on TGP Europe’s relationship with its Chinese parent company, the Suncity group, and suspected triad gangster Alvin Chau, currently awaiting trial in China, see this other investigation by Josimar.
And who are 8Xbet? The name immediately suggests some kind of link with 1Xbet, a deeply controversial Russian operator which Josimar has investigated in depth, so controversial, in fact, that several leading Premier League clubs, including Chelsea and Liverpool, severed all ties with it when it was discovered that the bookmaker was offering odds on youth games, ran a ‘pornhub casino’ and was advertising illegal streaming websites. 1Xbet has since ran into serious trouble and been recently declared bankrupt, something which, quite extraordinarily, has not prevented them from developing their presence within football, as reported in this other Josimar piece, partnering with FC Barcelona, Serie A and African Football Confederation among others.
Looking more closely, though, the similarity in name appears to be just that. The bets offered on 8Xbet and its bewildering number of mirror websites (*) are not the same as those offered on 1Xbet, as would be expected if the two entities were one and the same. Further research suggests that Singapore is the base for 8Xbet’s main website, and that their Indian iteration can be traced to Hong Kong. The domain name itself appears to be the property of a Chinese national living in the Shandong province, not that too much should be read into this: it is customary to employ fronts for the purpose of domain registration.
However, all of this suggests that 8Xbet is more likely than not to operate from South-East Asia, and boast of a particularly strong presence in Vietnam, another country where sports betting is illegal. One Vietnamese mirror website of 8Xbet’s, 978bet (there are dozens of others), lists an address in the Vincom Center, a tower block shopping mall in Ho Chi Minh city.
Accessing their website from Singapore, Josimar saw that 8Xbet claim that they obtained their original licence in Curaçao, the best, safest and cheapest haven for illegal gambling organisations; Curaçao, where, using one of a number of specialist agencies, it is possible to acquire a licence, hire locals to pose as directors and shareholders of the company, and even open a bank account in the British Virgin Islands, all for 5,000 dollars.
It is worth noting that, according to the Curaçao Commercial Register, 978 Tech N.V., the purported owner of the 8Xbet ‘brand, name and registered business’, was only created on 23 February 2021.
Looking at 8Xbet’s presence on social networks is not particularly helpful either. Their Vietnamese Twitter account, which follows all of Manchester City’s players, had a mere four followers as of 6 July 2022, six months after its launch.
What of 8Xbet’s people? ‘Ryan Li’, the ‘founder’ named in Manchester City’s statement, seems to be very difficult to track down. His name is so common that LinkedIn has well over 600 members bearing it, none of whom, incidentally, lists 8Xbet in their professional profile. No photographs of him appear to be available, despite his name also appearing in a press release from February 2022, when 8Xbet announced that former Tottenham and Manchester United striker Teddy Sheringham had become their global brand ambassador. A video of Sheringham’s ‘signing ceremony’ (252 viewers at the time of writing) can be watched here.
Interestingly, the name of another ‘founder’ of 8Xbet, one Trįnh Thu Trang, from HoChi Minh City in Vietnam, was to be found on LinkedIn until very recently, but seems to have been taken offline on 6 July, the day after Manchester City’s announcement of its partnership with 8Xbet.
However, the picture used for Trįnh Thu Trang’s Linkedin profile has been pulled from another site. The same picture is used in an advertisement for lazerdesigns, a company selling all sorts of gifts from Broomfield, Colorado. Yours for 44.99 dollars.
So who the actual owners of 8Xbet are is unclear, and whether their executives actually exist as well is hard to tell, as is the rule when dealing with ‘Asian-facing’ betting operators. As the UK Gambling Commission, who has registered over 3,000 gambling business, when its French counterpart has only issued 15 licences, leaves it entirely to companies like TGP Europe to determine whether their clients are suitable or not, we should not be hoping for a response from that corner.
Josimar has contacted Manchester City and will update this story as and when we get a response.
• The production of this investigation was supported by a grant from the Investigative Journalism for Europe (IJ4EU) fund.