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Letter from Peking: China's new obsession

ASK A Pekinger to name all the English cities he knows, and he may manage four or five. But ask him to name all the English football teams he knows, and the list may include a dozen cities, such is the welcome the Premiership has received here. Manchester United arrive in late July for sell-out games while Crystal Palace are on a four-match tour across China.

The English connection extends right up to the most perilous job in Chinese football: Bobby Houghton, formerly of Ipswich, Malmo and Nottingham Forest, coaches the national team.

It has not been all one-way traffic. Palace owe their celebrity in China to the signing last September of two Chinese internationals, Fan Zhiyi and Sun Jihai. "We only sell our bad players abroad!" Lin Tao, a trade official, joked after Fan missed a close-range header in last Wednesday's friendly against the local favourites, Peking Guo'an.

Yet both Fan and Sun looked assured in Crystal Palace's line-up, with Sun scoring the second goal in Palace's 2-1 victory. Song Jiansheng, football commentator for Peking Television, said: "The overall teamwork and level of the English First Division is still higher than our top league. Fan and Sun have definitely improved by playing there."

Tour organisers had been apprehensive following the stoning in May of the British and US embassies after the NATO bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. "It was great that Palace came", admitted one relieved British diplomat, although heavy rain kept the crowd under half the 60,000 who watched England beat China 3-0 in a Euro 96 warm-up game.

It remains to be seen how well Palace can cash in on their fame in the world's most populous country. The impoverished South London club could hardly have chosen a better summer holiday destination - there is much to learn from China's battles to save its debt-ridden, state-owned enterprises, the painful legacy of a command economy. Coverage on Chinese television last season dropped after Palace's Chinese players were injured, but the print media that stirs Chinese football fever has kept fans informed of the club's financial woes.

On 21 July, the past masters in profitable self-promotion are due in Shanghai to deliver both a footballing and business lesson. "The Red Devils are coming!" screamed the sports press, and 80,000 tickets sold out within days for Manchester United's visit on their pre-season tour. The barrage of publicity was preaching to the converted - many Chinese watched live coverage of the key moments of the Treble, despite the time differences.

Over the last decade English football has been broadcast to Peking, Shanghai and Guangdong province, reaching some 220 million people. Attracting the Red Devils is a major victory for Shanghai over its rival, the political capital, Peking. Shanghai's emergence as a financial powerhouse, home to one of China's two stock markets, makes it the more appropriate venue for Manchester United plc.

Their opponents, Shanghai Shenhua, top China's league. After only five years of professional football in China, the domestic game has achieved standards that England, the home of football, took over a century to perfect: occasional violence on and off the pitch, and countrywide despair at every poor performance of the (men's) national team.

It is typical of heightened expectations that some fans were disappointed Fan and Sun did not join a top-flight club like United. The fans are impatient to see China's potentially vast pool of players, and growing achievements in other sports, translate into international success.

A key hindrance, they believe, is the bureaucracy that maintains the primacy of sport as a political tool. While gratified by anything that spurs national pride, the Chinese Communist Party has definite concerns about the social consequences of any mass activity, particularly one like football, with millions more followers, and arousing far deeper passions, than the Party can summon nowadays.

With similar dedication to the former eastern bloc, the Chinese government recognises the value of sport as both national propaganda and a release for its citizens, eager for new heroes in the post-Mao age. While promising toddlers are trained as gymnasts and divers, and swimmers thrive on turtle's blood and more suspect substances, it is harder to build rapid success in a team sport so flowing and unpredictable as football.

Besides ongoing Olympic qualifiers, Houghton must succeed where an East German predecessor failed and get China to its first World Cup. The automatic qualification of the 2002 co-hosts, Japan and South Korea, traditionally China's bogeymen, should aid his cause, provided the threatened Asian boycott of the World Cup is resolved.

Their history of failure, hounded by an impatient audience, is in stark contrast to the success of China's women's team, which met the US in the Women's World Cup final on Saturday. While some football papers spoke darkly of revenge for the Belgrade bombing, most fans simply warmed to their team's progress.

Like millions of others nationwide, Zhang and Liang stayed up for the 4am live broadcast, only to suffer heartbreak two hours later with the US winning in a penalty shoot-out.

Commenting on the pitiful salaries of China's women footballers, compared to its pampered male stars, let alone the Old Trafford millionaires, Vice Premier Madame Wu Yi advised: "Male footballers should learn from the spirit" of the women's team.

Goalkeeper Gao Hong, interviewed just before the final, sounds like a voice from a lost China. "Rather than use money to compare us with the men's team, I weigh honour more highly. If I earned a million yuan salary, maybe I couldn't throw all my efforts into playing as I do know; I'd spend more time and energy considering how to enjoy it. But compared to earning a million yuan, I feel more pride when I hear the cheers as our national flag is raised in a foreign and distant land. That's something money can't buy."

Calum MacLeod