AYUTTHAYA/BANGKOK: Elephants kicked off World Cup fever in Thailand's ancient capital of Ayutthaya on Tuesday, playing a soccer match to raise awareness against illegal gambling.
Nine elephants, painted with the flags of countries competing in 2018 World Cup in Russia, passed the ball to each other and swerved around the field in a 15-minute match against students from a local school.
Organizers said they wanted to show students the World Cup was more about enjoying the sport than betting on teams.
"They're here to bring colour and joy, and create awareness that we can enjoy the World Cup without gambling and just cheer for the soccer players," said Reangthongbaht Meephan, deputy chief of the Ayutthaya Elephant Palace and Royal Kraal.
Illegal gambling on the World Cup is prevalent in countries like Thailand and Malaysia, where football is hugely popular, but which don't have legal betting alternatives.
Betting or promoting gambling on football is a criminal offences in Thailand, but those who get caught often face only a small fine of 1,000 baht (23.3 pounds)).
If children are involved, their parents can face a 10,000 baht (232.8 pounds) fine or three months in jail.
Football gambling is big business in Thailand.
A survey by the University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce forecast 59 billion baht (1.4 billion pounds) in World Cup betting in Thailand this year, contributing 0.2 percent to economic growth.
Law enforcement agencies in Asia say they are gearing up to fight illegal gambling operators ahead of the World Cup. In Bangkok, police said they have arrested 763 people in 681 cases of illegal soccer gambling since May 1.
Bangkok's deputy police commissioner Panurat Lakboon said they are monitoring over 300 gambling websites, but many are difficult to shut down because they are hosted on servers outside Thailand.
Police also planned to summon 18 women who posted sexy pictures or videos of themselves to promote betting websites.
"There are pretty models on the Internet posting pictures in bikinis to advertise for soccer betting websites," Panurat said, adding police have received reports of more than 100 models engaged in similar activities.
One gambler in Bangkok said the police campaign was unlikely to make a serious dent in World Cup wagering.
"Betting on soccer is so easy in Thailand," said the gambler, who declined to be named.
"You can even go into a market and ask around, and within 10 minutes someone will come to take your bet," he said.
(Reporting by Juarawee Kittisilpa, Patpicha Tanakasempipat, Panarat Thepgumpanat, and Panu Wongcha-um; Writing by Patpicha Tanakasempipat; Editing by Darren Schuettler)