Nation & World

When soccer's stars align Chinese fans politely savor show

BEIJING — The flags and banners and multicolored wigs were there. So were the stirring chants of "Argentina!" and "Brazil!"

For a second, the scene at the Workers' Stadium Tuesday night could have been mistaken for Rio de Janeiro's Maracana or Buenos Aires' River Plate stadiums as the two South American soccer giants' men's teams clashed in an Olympic semifinals match.

Nearly 53,000 mostly Chinese fans had filled the venue to catch some World Cup-style magic, and tens of millions of people across South America were watching on television. Argentine soccer legend Diego Maradona was rumored to be in the stands.

Yet the illusion of soccer fire and brimstone was quickly broken. As a trio of Brazilian fans at the game put it, the Chinese were just too polite for the real thing, especially in a showdown between these two longtime soccer rivals.

No one, for example, yelled impassioned curses at a hated player's mother. The crowd at one point even applauded when a Brazilian helped a fallen Argentine onto his feet. The fans cheered when the Brazilian team drove toward the goal. Then they cheered when an Argentine player dribbled the ball.

"The Chinese lack passion," said Rio de Janeiro resident Carmen Ghisi as she left the stadium in disgust with Argentina's 3-0 victory. "Their loyalties are divided."

Argentina's baby blue and white flag appeared to outnumber Brazil's green and gold, and the Chinese started siding with the Argentines as it became clear in the second half that the Brazilians were sinking. The Argentine side will face off against Nigeria in Saturday's final.

But with about 10 minutes left in the game, the crowd switched sides again and started a thunderous chant of "Give it some gas, Ronaldinho," referring to the star Brazilian midfielder.

Beijing resident Jenny Liu said she didn't really understand the rules of soccer but had come just to get a glimpse of Ronaldinho, whom the Chinese call "Little Luo."

"All Chinese know Ronaldinho," Liu said. "He's renowned for his talent."

The crowd also roared its approval for Argentine forward Leonel Messi and U.S. basketball player Kobe Bryant, who was spotted in the crowd.

Watching the proceedings with an amused smile, Argentine journalist Gustavo Aro said such a matchup played in Buenos Aires would have sparked near-homicidal hysteria from both countries' fans.

"There would be songs and fireworks and just a lot of craziness," Aro said. "It would be a dangerous place to be in."

Spectator Wu Guo Long, who wore small Chinese flags on his cheeks, said soccer remained a weak point for Chinese athletes even as they dominate the Olympics this month.

China's men and women's soccer teams were roundly scorned after quickly being eliminated from Olympic play. China is also a bottom-rung power in World Cup competition, which tops the Olympics as the world's most-watched sporting event.

"We just don't have the skills for this," Wu said. "We're good at ping pong. We can only watch soccer."

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