HONG KONG punters are placing millions of dollars of illegal bets on overseas soccer matches every weekend amid growing calls for the Government to legalise betting on the game. By the time the English Premiership kicks off each Saturday, deals worth millions of dollars have been done in an underground bookmaking world run by bankers (chong ga ) and their runners, nicknamed small boats (tang tsai ) because they fish for customers. The racket is becoming so big - it also sees money change hands on other European soccer leagues and international matches - that Jockey Club bosses are worried it is gobbling up revenue that should be theirs. This week the club was reticent on its stance on running a soccer betting operation, but at the end of last year chairman Alan Li Fook-sum said it would consider operating a football gambling operation in the face of competition from Internet betting. 'It's huge, the interest, especially in the English Premiership,' said a police source. 'Individual bets can run into the tens of thousands. Overall we must be talking millions.' The source said one of the big players in the illegal betting world - including soccer and horse racing - was the Wo On Lok triad society. A number of its members were convicted of offences connected with horse-racing and soccer betting last year after being targeted in raids by the Organised Crime and Triad Bureau. The secret society's London branch was thought to have had links to an attempt to rig the result of a game between Charlton Athletic and Liverpool last year by switching off the floodlights. Although there is no official estimate of the scale of the racket, evidence gathered by Independent Commission Against Corruption investigators revealed that one bookmaker alone took in $8.7 million in just one week, during the June 1998 World Cup. They discovered that the same bookmaker took $26 million in October 1997 on various overseas football matches, with complex records stored on computer. One focus of much of the action - though not necessarily where bets are placed - is a series of bars in Tsim Sha Tsui, which sources identified to the Sunday Morning Post. One bar provides a computer terminal so that during lulls in the giant screen action gamblers can check the latest scores on one of the many Web sites dedicated to soccer betting. But to get around the law, punters can only click on the latest scores icon; the others - which include betting details such as odds - have been locked. Inside a Tsim Sha Tsui sports bar a Post reporter watched frantic 'fans' take in the game between Leeds United and Tottenham Hotspur. Most in the bar had backed Leeds to win. The place erupted when Leeds scored a fourth goal, leaving a nail-biting last 20 minutes. 'I am about to claim my winnings, if they can just be good boys till the last second,' said salesman David Hung in one bar in Hillwood Road. No bets were taken in the bar, nor were any placed in three other bars in Chatham Road and Hanoi Road, but the talk was of soccer and all eyes were either on the match or the Web site. Mr Hung said he had placed bets with a bookmaker through a friend before he came to watch the game in the bar. 'No one would be stupid enough to do it in a public place. But almost everyone here has placed some bets outside, big or small,' he said. 'I don't see the point of it being illegal. I don't know why we still can't bet like people in Macau. Actually, many people in the world can do it legally. Why can't we?' Another customer, Ah Ming, who said he placed his bets on casino mogul Stanley Ho Hung-sun's Internet site - macauslot.com - had the same grievance. Clicking the mouse to check on the latest scores from Britain, he said: 'We are a free society and we can bet on horses and the Mark Six, so why not soccer?' Apart from Leeds, Mr Hung put 'a few hundred dollars' on Southampton to beat Middlesborough, but they lost. 'Fortunately, I usually break even,' he said as he left the bar around midnight. One insider said illegal soccer bookmaking operated on a brokerage system, with many minor operators - tang tsai - taking on bets from friends or customers who are referred to them. These runners are linked to the bigger syndicates who set out the dividend levels. Bets are placed orally and no money is exchanged. Winnings or losses are credited or debited to and from bank accounts, and in some rare cases, cash will be delivered. The tang tsai take a commission. The insider explained that the Hong Kong pay ratio for the battle between Arsenal and Manchester United earlier this month was one to 1.9 for Arsenal to win (for a $100 bet, a punter would win $90 if Arsenal won) and one to 1.95 for Manchester to win. The ratio for last week's France versus Cameroon friendly was one to 1.85 on France winning by at least two goals. For a Cameroon win it was one to 1.85. Under the 30-year-old Gambling Ordinance, only betting on horse racing, Mark Six and in licensed mahjong parlours is permitted. The sole agent for taking racing bets and Mark Six is the Hong Kong Jockey Club and the Government is responsible for the mahjong parlours. Officials from the Home Affairs Bureau concede the laws are outdated and say they are under review. But neither the bureau, the Jockey Club nor the police would comment on legalising soccer betting. A spokesman for the club described the issue as sensitive. 'It's up to the Government to come up with its decision. We will assess the situation according to the policy,' the spokesman said. Police said last week they were monitoring the situation. A spokesman warned that any gambling activities, whether bookmaking or betting on the Internet, would break the law, but side-stepped questions about legalising soccer betting. 'During the course of time over the past decades, there have been many changes [in society]. The law is now under review to see if any amendments are necessary to fit the current situation and we are looking at a range of very complicated issues,' a Home Affairs Bureau spokesman said.