SCMP Tuesday, October 9, 2001

Ultimate goal looms for anxious fans

MARK O'NEILL in Beijing

"All of our life is for this day," screamed the headline on the front page of Soccer News yesterday as millions of anxious Chinese fans prepared for tomorrow night's World Cup qualifier.
China play Oman in the northeastern city of Shenyang and a draw will mean they qualify for the World Cup finals for the first time. Tickets have sold out and touts are offering them for several times their face value of between 600 and 800 yuan (HK$566 to HK$755).
The weather in Shenyang is exactly as the China Football Association had hoped - a bleak three degrees Celsius, cold and drizzling. The conditions will be uncomfortable for the Omanis, who are used to playing in heat.
State television showed them training in anoraks with hoods on at the Wulihe stadium, which holds 45,000 spectators.
The association also picked Shenyang because its fans were among the most boisterous in the country, urging on players with drums, horns and singing.
State television will begin 6.5 hours of build-up at 1pm tomorrow, including interviews and recorded footage before the 7.30pm kick-off. If the team qualifies there will be an hour-long celebration with 100 singers and all-night parties in the squares of Shenyang.
Few give the Omanis much chance against the torrent of patriotism. They are bottom of the five-team group, with two draws and three defeats from their five games and no hope of qualifying for the finals.
China have won four and drawn one of their five games and need only one point from their last three matches, against Oman and Qatar at home and Uzbekistan away over the next two weeks, to go through as the group leaders.
"No problem," said Zhang Guoqiang, a Beijing taxi driver. "Our team is playing very confidently at the moment and Oman are very weak. I will go home early on Sunday and buy a few beers. Millions of Chinese will be watching the game live on television."
National newspapers yesterday published a telegram from Vice-Premier Li Lanqing to the team, wishing them success.
Soccer News said in a front-page editorial: "A victory would be an historic milestone for Chinese soccer. This is the day that soccer players have been waiting for for decades."