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Friday, 24 May, 2002, 10:09 GMT 11:09 UK
China gripped by football fever
Chinese football fans in Shanghai
Excitement is building throughout the country

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On a lush, green playing field high in the mountains of south-west China's Yunnan province, an extraordinary scene is being played out.

Burly young men are running up and down the field dribbling and passing footballs between them.

Open Quote
Forget Chairman Mao, these are China's new idols
Close Quote

A few metres away, held back behind 10-feet-high wire fencing, hundreds of screaming teenagers jostle for position.

Some shout out names, others squeal with delight whenever one of the men comes close. Inside the fence, stretched out along the touch line, a wall of TV cameras and photographers follow the players every move.

Forget Chairman Mao - these are China's new idols, the 23 members of its national football team.

China has never seen football fever like this before. But then China's football team has never made it to the World Cup before.

Turnaround

Among the names being screamed by the young fans, one stands out. "Milu" they shout over and over. "Milu we love you".

Chinese football coach Bora Milutinovic
Milu has become a cult figure

Milu isn't a player, he's not even Chinese. Milu is Bora Milutinovic, China's enigmatic Serbian coach. Now in his mid 50s with a mop of grey hair, the one time Yugoslav international has achieved the near impossible.

Having coached Mexico, Costa Rica, Nigeria and the United States to the World Cup finals, he is now adding China to his list.

Milu himself plays down the achievement.

"My philosophy is very simple" he tells me. "I tell the players to have fun. Take it seriously, but enjoy the game, this is the most important thing."

China's success has turned Milu in to a cult figure. Turn on the television and Milu's boyish grin can be found advertising everything from Chinese-made air conditioner to fiery rice liquor.

The head of one village in eastern China is so obsessed he has applied to have its name changed to "Milu Village".

Before Milu's arrival it was all very different. China's 100 million fanatical fans watched as their team went down to defeat after defeat.

Six times, China tried and failed to make it to the World Cup. At home, China's professional league is rife with allegations of corruption and match fixing.

Two months ago, soccer fans went on the rampage in central China after a referee awarded a last minute penalty to the visiting team.

Football fans riot in Xian, March 2002
China is learning football's darker arts too
Turn off

Screaming that the referee had been paid to fix the match, hundreds of angry fans set fire to the stadium.

Disgusted, other fans have simply turned elsewhere.

At the red house sports bar in downtown Beijing, a group of fans are glued to an enormous television screen carefully nursing ice-cold beers.

On the screen, Liverpool are taking on Chelsea. The English Premier league is huge in China. David Beckham and Michael Owen are virtually household names.

The owner of the bar, Simon Chen, is a Liverpool fan. As he pulls another beer he tells me why.

"I love Liverpool" he says "they play so well, so beautifully. Their skills are world class. The difference is huge - foreign teams are much better than Chinese teams."

But now even Simon is getting caught up in the World Cup fever.

"This is the first time for us to go to the world cup, so this is fantastic for China and for Chinese football fans. It's like China is finally joining the football world."

Back at their training camp, the pressure on the Chinese team is immense.

On 4 June they take on Costa Rica in South Korea. Four days later they face mighty Brazil. Few give them much chance.

But for most Chinese it is enough that their team has finally made it, to stand shoulder to shoulder with the world's greatest football teams, at what many consider the greatest sporting event on earth.

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GROUP C
  P GD PTS
BRAZIL 3 +8 9
TURKEY 3 +2 4
COSTA RICA 3 -1 4
CHINA 3 -9 0

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