China's fans prepare for debut
Wang Zhanjun does not just eat, drink and think football, he lives and breathes the game.
As he sits under a giant inflatable soccer ball in his "Soccer Fan" restaurant, he dreams of only one thing -- cheering China to victory on their debut in the World Cup finals.
"I want to be there, to wave my flag and cheer for my country," says Wang as waitresses scoot by in Manchester United strips and customers take turns in an indoor penalty shoot-out range.
The self-styled Godfather of Chinese soccer fans, Wang hopes to lead 100,000 supporters to South Korea in June to watch China's maiden appearance in the World Cup finals 44 years after they first entered the competition.
But with just over two months until China face Group C rivals Brazil, Turkey and Costa Rica, ruthless scalpers and a state monopoly on ticket sales are conspiring against Wang's army of fans.
And even if the fans make it to Seoul without breaking the bank, China are unlikely to get beyond the first round.
"I am realistic," said the 40-year-old Wang, a portly former copper worker zipped tightly into a Chinese national team tracksuit.
"I understand China's level. Of course, I would like us to win a match, to score a goal. But I can't put too much pressure on our team," he said. "After all, just by qualifying, we have already won our greatest victory."
After a string of near misses in previous World Cups, China clinched their berth in the finals on October 7 with a 1-0 home victory over Oman in the northeastern city of Shenyang.
Seventy years after joining FIFA, football's governing body, the victory marked another giant step in China's relentless quest to reclaim superpower status.
It capped a bumper year of international honours, including Beijing's successful bid to host the 2008 Summer Olympics and entry to the World Trade Organisation (WTO).
And it was glorious redemption for a national team long panned by China's 80 million-odd soccer fans.
Their passion was ignited in the early 1990s when state television started broadcasting British and Italian football.
But China's national team did not live up to the high standards of the fans who cringed with every defeat while China's gymnasts, table tennis players and swimmers swept up gold after gold.
Frustrated by sloppy performances and infighting just before the World Cup qualifiers, fans and media even bayed for the dismissal of Serbian coach Bora Milutinovic, who took over in January 2000.
The defiant Serb promised : "If this time China can't make the finals, I will jump off the Great Wall."
Now "Milu", as he is known in China, is hailed as a miracle-worker after guiding his fifth national team into the World Cup finals.
"It was the happiest day of my life," says Wang, recalling the night he celebrated China's victory with some 500,000 ecstatic fans on Tiananmen Square.
"This wasn't just about the World Cup, it was about China standing up in the world," he said. "We'd got the Beijing Olympics, we'd got the WTO but this was the best of the lot."
Only one thing now stands between Wang and his World Cup fantasy -- a ticket.
China has been allocated just 10,500 for their three opening matches, all to be distributed by one travel agent run by the sports ministry.
The firm, China International Sports Travel (CIST), is charging 7,000 yuan ($845) for a basic package of one ticket, two nights' accommodation and flights to and from South Korea.
With average per capita income at just $758 per year in cities, that is a fortune by Chinese standards.
The fans are up in arms. They accuse CIST of overcharging and are lobbying South Korea to issue China with more tickets.
"How can an ordinary Chinese person afford that?" said Zhu Zhenhua, 34, a sales manager at a state-run paper factory and a regular at Wang's place. "I am trying to cut back on expensive food and I'm smoking cheaper cigarettes now."
"But I have a wife and child to look after. I would sacrifice my own health for a ticket but not that of my family."
CIST says its prices are fair given accommodation and travel costs, the overland route being blocked by Stalinist North Korea. The monopoly, it says, will prevent price gouging.
Meanwhile, black market prices are going through the roof. A South Korean offered Wang a ticket for 10,000 yuan the other day.
NOTHING TO LOSE
Wang is confident he will make it to Seoul, even if he has to take the boat. But he is less optimistic about China's chances.
Football pundits doubt Milutinovic can take China through to the second stage as he did his four previous sides -- the United States, Nigeria, Mexico and Costa Rica.
China lack exposure to top-class international players like those they face in Group C, the critics say.
Several of the Chinese squad now play in Europe, including Chen Yang for Eintracht Frankfurt, Xie Hui for Aachen, Fan Zhiyi for Dundee and Sun Jihai for Manchester City.
But the team as a whole are short on international experience. In 1999, they did not play a single friendly game.
The real sceptics say China qualified only because they did not play Japan and South Korea, both of whom won a berth in the finals automatically as hosts.
In preliminary rounds, China notched up only narrow wins over footballing minnows the Maldives and Cambodia. And just last month, Milutinovic's men suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of tiny Hong Kong.
"It's not impossible for us...because nothing is impossible in football but we have to be realistic: it will be far from straightforward," Milutinovic said in a recent interview with FIFA's official website.
"Being drawn with Brazil means that right from the off the other three teams are vying for second place," he said.
But China's lack of experience on the world soccer stage could in fact be their greatest strength, he added.
"We are physically and tactically strong. In fact my team has few weaknesses. And our big advantage is that we have nothing to lose."