China lives World Cup soccer from afar

Updated: 2014-06-26 07:04

By James Whitehead (China Daily USA)

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The curtains have rolled back on the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil. Fortunate fans around the globe have flocked to host cities and are concentrated in Rio de Janeiro, where the final will be held. Yet the Brazilian buzz is not exclusively felt in the host nation, or in the 32 competing countries. Nations eliminated in the qualifying groups have not let their light of fervor flicker in the wind of resignation.

The national team from the world's most populous country may be absent from the international theater, but the Chinese have packed out the seats around the stage. Restaurant and bar areas are hubs of enthusiastic fans; domestic and international fans are pocketed around cities. Although China has only qualified for the World Cup once, in 2002, its soccer supporters are legion. During the last World Cup in South Africa in 2010, China accounted for the largest single-country audience for the tournament, with an average of 17.5 million tuning in for each live match. And it appears much the same this summer.

China lives World Cup soccer from afar

Inconvenient kickoff times, all from 12 am to 6 am, are not deterring Chinese fans from coming out in droves, appearing from the bleak blackness of the night to gather in the many bars and restaurants, to cheer on their designated team for the night.

While watching the England vs Uruguay match, I looked around and counted 30 or so fellow soccer enthusiasts, divided by teams but united in spirit. At halftime I talked to a Chinese group sitting at a table beside me, all enjoying Beijing-brewed beer poured from a 3-liter glass cup. They weren't rooting for any one team, but had a passion for the game. They'd calculate the two nations' chances pre-game before throwing all their energy and affection into them, and then the next day, recalculate for the next night's festivities.

Asked what they thought of the awkward kickoff times, all but one confessed to awarding themselves the following day off. One fan's dedication to "the beautiful game" went a step further. "I'm going to be sick tomorrow," he replied matter-of-factly, as the grin on his face turned into a proud chuckle. He explained how he'd purchased a forged medical certificate, hoping to legitimize his "illness". And it's no surprise, some companies in China have even shifted their working hours to squeeze in the games, hoping to shelter themselves from any economic blows incurred by absent workers. This is something unimaginable in England - although the government has allowed pubs to extend their opening hours for the kickoffs late into the night. With 24 hours to kick back and relax, the man with his "official" high soccer fever will have plenty of time to analyze and choose his team for the coming night's clash of nations.

Shops stuff their aisles with special promotions of beer and snacks. And for a brief moment it looked like the Beijing subway was going to get in on the festivities, too. A proposal had been made to rename 32 lines of the underground after the teams fighting it out at the World Cup - but that was kicked out of play just before the tournament began. But it's evidence that China doesn't need its national team present at the World Cup to join in the celebrations of a sporting event that is unrivalled on the international stage: the Shakespeare of sport.

In stadiums and streets in Brazil, the thundering drums and quick steps of the samba play the soundtrack to the theatrics of the soccer carnival. Its rhythms and noise have filtered their way around the globe: a boombox for the international stage. Feet are tapping here in China, too: We're all dancing the samba.

 China lives World Cup soccer from afar

Li Min / China Daily

(China Daily USA 06/26/2014 page9)