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   27 May, 2002 | 2000 IST


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China a success, but pride's at stake

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Jeremy Page

China may have already achieved success by qualifying for the World Cup for the first time but national pride is still on the line for the inexperienced side that began a second day of training in South Korea on Monday.

Some 25,000 Chinese fans are expected to travel to South Korea to watch China's first round games against Costa Rica, Brazil and Turkey in Group C, many of them paying more than an average year's income for a one-match package.

Hundreds of millions more will be glued to television sets from the teeming megalopoles of Beijing and Shanghai to the plateaux and deserts of Tibet and Xinjiang.

For them, China's World Cup appearance represents a giant step in the nation's relentless quest for superpower status after decades of political instability and economic backwardness.

For the rest of the world, especially soccer clubs and multinational corporations, it gives a taste of the enormous talent pool and marketing potential for football in the world's most populous nation.

It is an enormous burden to place on the shoulders of the nervous young squad who arrived in the city of Sogwipo on Sunday "looking tired" after their 2-0 defeat by Portugal in a warm-up match in Macau the night before, Chinese state media said.

But China's Serbian coach, Bora Milutinovic, sounded upbeat during a training session on Monday.

"As usual we are focusing on defence," he said. "We are preparing for the first match and the conditions here and of the players is great. You can say that we are preparing for battle."

Captain Ma Mingyu put a positive spin on China's lacklustre performances in a string of recent friendlies -- they beat Thailand 3-1, drew 0-0 with South Korea but lost 2-0 to Uruguay and 1-0 to Dutch club PSV Eindhoven.

"We gained a lot from the friendly games," said midfielder Ma. "We could recognise our weaknesses and start working on it to improve."


China tried to play down expectations last week by writing an open letter to the nation's 80 million-odd soccer fans posted on the official website of the Chinese football association

"You cannot deny, we are a new team in the World Cup and a weak one," the letter said. "Our lack of experience and ability have determined that we won't be able to go far."

Some Chinese fans have praised the team for its pragmatic approach while others scorned its defeatist tone.

But the letter has done little to dampen hopes at home that China can defy the odds and make it to the second round.

Chinese fans are banking on Milutinovic, who has guided four national teams into the second round of the World Cup - Mexico, Costa Rica, the United States and Nigeria.

Known in Mandarin simply as "Milu", the Serbian has become the best loved and most recognised foreigner in China since they qualified for the World Cup in October last year.

Milutinovic himself has flip-flopped between urging China to be realistic and hinting at the potential for an upset. He has said China had a chance of reaching the second round on points if they beat Costa Rica, lost to Brazil and held Turkey to a draw.

China have also been encouraged by the recovery of several top players after a string of injuries in the last two months.

Asked about an injury to veteran striker Hao Haidong, Milutinovic said: "No problem. He'll do well in the next match."

Defensive linchpin Fan Zhiyi was ready to start training again after picking up an ankle injury against PSV Eindhoven, state media quoted Milutinovic as saying.

China's goalkeeping coach Xu Tao, who was admitted to hospital last week after contracting hepatitis, was also hoping to come to South Korea by June 3, state media said.

China play Costa Rica in Kwangju on June 4, Brazil in Sogwipo on June 8 and Turkey in Seoul on June 13.

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