Asia-Pacific, Headlines

CULTURE-CHINA: World Cup Revives Spirit of Mass Revelry

Antoaneta Bezlova

BEIJING, Jun 28 2006 (IPS) - China failed to qualify for the World Cup but the country is, nevertheless, in the grip of genuine football fever which has had the effect of reversing long-standing government restrictions on unbridled public revelry and large gatherings.

Haunted by memories of youthful crowds during the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations on Tiananmen Square, Chinese communist leaders banned ‘illegal’ rallies and frowned on spontaneous festivities. But this year, Beijing seems to have given in to the intoxicating thrill of the world’s most watched sports event and relaxed its strict rules.

The place to be in Beijing on summer nights, when the games are beamed in from Germany, is the Summer Temple in Ritan Park where centuries ago Chinese emperors held ceremonies and made sacrifices to the sun god. These days, the imperial altar for sacrifice is occupied by a giant screen and the circular space around it is taken by a beer garden.

Thousands of football fans – old and young, men and women, gather here to share tables, applaud, jeer and laugh. They take in every toss, header, goal kick and red flag. The crowds multiply whenever the game is played by a team the Chinese have adopted as their own.

“It is amazing – I so love the feeling of sharing the excitement with other people,” says Li Junxia, a 26-year-old Beijing girl who learned about the Sun Temple football gathering from a cellphone text message (SMS) she received.

“It said – ‘don’t be lonely at home watching the games, come and join us to cheer together’,” Li recalls. She heeded the call and loved the screening at the Sun Temple. “I was awed to watch the games inside an imperial temple”.

With football being the country’s biggest spectator sport, sports events companies have seized the opportunity to convert every natural venue into outdoor broadcast locations.

Restaurants and bars in Beijing have jumped at the opportunity to lure more customers by putting up a TV and staying open late. The six-hour time difference means that the games are viewed late into the night, transforming the experience of shared football watching into a midnight party.

“The World Cup means enjoyment and this is something Chinese people have lacked for long periods of their history,” says social commentator He Jiahong. “For years, Chinese people lived very austerely and with a sense of grave historical burden. The World Cup is a chance of pure enjoyment, of release and Chinese people are taken with it.”

The fact that China is not participating is disappointing but has set law enforcement officials at ease. Traditionally, football matches where a Chinese team is involved can be rowdy affairs. During the Asian Cup final between China and Japan two years ago, crowd behaviour slipped out of control after Japan won 3-1. Chinese fans threw bottles, shouted obscenities and burned Japanese flags. Police and security officials had to respond violently.

Although anti-Japanese feelings run strong in China, the real reason is the fans’ frustration that football in China, unlike in Japan or South Korea, has failed to develop. Despite spending billions on becoming a mighty football power, having world-class players and ardent fans, the world’s largest nation has failed to achieve its burning dream of World Cup glory.

“There is less tension this time”, says bar owner Gao Ran of watching the 2006 World Cup. “We watch the games because we love the sport and like to lay bets on which team will come through, but we never get so upset or angry as we did when China lost in 2002”.

China’s debut at the World Cup that year came after five consecutive failures to qualify and was seen as a rightful emergence of the nation on the podium of sport’s glory. Thousands of people travelled to South Korea where the 2002 World Cup was held to see the matches live. Millions more back home stayed glued to their TVs to watch China’s matches with a surging feeling of national pride, which later turned to anguish.

The Chinese team was eliminated after losing all three of its games in a group that also had Brazil, Turkey and Costa Rica. Since then, China has struggled to achieve any significant football victory.

A series of match-fixing scandals have eroded confidence in the Chinese Super League. The Chinese football-viewing public has been angered with inept government management and the dodgy referees and has turned its attention towards European and South American teams whose games they view as more professional.

“Many in China still haven’t woken up from their dream of becoming the new world power with the best football team,” lamented commentator Xu Tao in the China Economic Times. “But we should be glad that for many others the World Cup is becoming what it is supposed to be – a competition bringing fun, leisure and respect for each other.”

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