A CURSORY view from outside the Innscor food court, Fantasyland, along Inez Terrace and opposite the Joina City shopping mall in Harare, gives the impression of a hive of activity as people of all ages relentlessly shuffle up and down the stairs.
By Kevin Mapasure
Most of them are often engrossed in small pieces of paper, much in the way you would memorise important formulas on a piece of paper ahead of an exam.
But after the ascent through the flights of stairs warm thick air engulfs you as you get to the door. Upon entry the first thing that captures the attention is a packed large hall where despite numerous air conditioners whirling from the ceiling the warm thick air still triumphs. But this does not seem to bother the occupants.
Scores of young, middle aged and old men of working and non-working classes file in neat long queues, while others, if not in mini-conference, are deeply immersed in the television sets hanging from the roof with each showing a different programme from the other.
This is the welcome to arguably the most popular shop in Harare, Soccer Shop, the home of sports betting –– an activity that has gripped the capital’s sports fans and fortune seekers in the city.
Whilst there are other players that have been offering the same services for a long time locally, the arrival of Soccer Shop has revolutionised sports betting and helped it increasingly gain acceptance.
In a country where more than three quarters of the population is unemployed anything that can bring income is likely to gain popularity, and sport betting is now a full time engagement for some.
Football is by far the most popular discipline among punters but there are some, though very few, who wager on disciplines such as tennis, Formula One and cricket, to name only a few.
Horse racing is the second most popular after football.
At times, especially during weekends, the hall resembles a tennis arena with cheers and jeers as punters follow action closely hoping results match their bets, which equals a payout.
Every minute and every touch is important when it comes to the betting; one can place a bet on a 10-minute or first-half scoreline of a match.
But in stark contrast to the queues on the betting counters, the single payout point is characterised by short queues, if not deserted.
Occasionally though the queue is long, especially when most of the popular teams win their matches.
Yet despite money lost clearly outweighing money won, punters, some of whom are engaged in the pastime full-time, remain optimistic, adamant and determined to beat the bookmaker at some point. The most popular teams especially with newer punters include Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Manchester City and Manchester United –– though its dip in form has made it less popular of late –– Celtic, Juventus and Real Madrid.
But veteran punters go beyond the popular leagues and teams, and place bets on teams playing in leagues in Thailand, Ecuador, Mozambique, Wales and China among others.
Bets are placed even on the lowest of leagues in particular countries, for instance, the Conference League in England is popular with some punters and they arm themselves with information from the internet.
There are many options one can make in placing a bet. One can predict an outright win for a particular team or teams and place that on one ticket. Home teams often pay less.
One can predict a home win or draw as a double chance, which of course offers lower odds.
One can also simply predict that a certain team will score or that a minimum of a certain number of goals will be scored in a match. For example one can bet that a match involving Barcelona and Levante will produce a minimum of three goals. The brave ones can actually predict the actual score line and that option pays more.
Only recently one punter placed US$5 on a Chelsea 3-1 win over Manchester United and a Tottenham 3-1 win at Swansea and walked away with US$1 570.
One ticket displayed in the Samora Machel branch of Soccer Shop shows that a punter placed US$250 on a ticket containing eight matches, and won US$6 600.
Another placed US$1 and won US$863 while yet another placed a US$100 on a 16-team ticket predicting various outcomes and made an extra US$2 084 from it.
One punter, a regular at the old Fantasyland shop, shed some light on betting, arguing those brave with their money stand better chances of winning that those who bet small and take less risks.
“Those people who bet small amounts often lose. It’s very difficult to win anything from a dollar,” he said. “Yes you can win something but it’s not something you can do over and over again, it’s just a big gamble. The reason being that if you are to place a dollar it means that you have to select some 20 matches for you to stand a chance of winning a reasonable figure and you have to get all predictions right which is very difficult.”
Whilst the loss stories are many, happier ones have also been told of people winning huge amounts from both big and small money bets.The most popular story recently is of a pair who put in US$40 000 for an FC Napoli win and they won an extra US$33 000.
A recent sad tale is of a punter who put in US$30 000 betting for a FC Bayern Munich win against Manchester City in a Uefa Champions League Group match qualifier and the Germans lost; so too did the punter — heavily!
Norman Macheka, a manager at the Soccer Shop Samora Machel branch said sport betting was growing fast in Zimbabwe.
Macheka was working for the same company in South Africa before he was transferred to Harare together with several other Zimbabweans at the opening of the Harare branches.
“There has been tremendous growth since we came and opened here in Zimbabwe. There were other players but betting was not as popular then,” said Macheka.
“We cannot give figures but the busy days are usually Friday and Saturday. I can also say that punters are improving; with experience they know what to do and there are many whom we know to be making a living out it. We are looking to expand further and very soon we will be opening another branch in Bulawayo.”
Clearly betting is gaining acceptance in Zimbabwe but some punters said that they would rather keep it a secret from spouses and families until they win big.
There is always an argument between sports punters and those who despise betting as to whether it falls under gambling.
Those who engage in the act argue that they place bets on something they know and it is not about luck.
Whether sport betting is gambling or not is unclear; what is crystal clear is that it has taken Harare by storm.