Victory for Steel Roses reinforces Games fever

Fans wearing Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard shirts are thrilled as China's women footballers beat Sweden. Paul Newman reports from Tianjin

Thursday 07 August 2008 00:00

Lidia Yan was still serving food in the Xibei Hanzi restaurant half a mile away, but the 22-year-old university student's heart was here in the Tianjin Olympic Stadium. Even though work meant she was unable to watch in person as the national women's football team became the first Chinese to compete at the 2008 Olympics, there would no doubt have been a skip in her step as news of Han Duan's winning goal in last night's 2-1 victory over Sweden filtered through.

If the 60,000-capacity "Teardrop Stadium" – so called because of its remarkable design – was less than two-thirds full, the enthusiasm for the Games of many Chinese was typified by Yan. She was so desperate to sample the Olympic experience that she took a summer job as a waitress here in this port city, which is a 21-hour train journey from her home in Hubei province in the centre of the country.

Tianjin, a city of 10 million inhabitants situated 85 miles from Beijing and 25 miles from the Yellow Sea, is one of the hosts for the football tournament and, just as importantly for Yan, was on the route of the Olympic torch, which passed through three days ago.

"It was so exciting," Yan said. "It was due to pass near the restaurant at eight in the morning. Most of the restaurant staff stayed up all night to make sure they didn't miss it. I couldn't stay awake that long, but I made sure that I was up in time to be out on the road by six. There were so many people lining the streets that it was hard to see, but I wouldn't have missed it for anything. It was a wonderful experience."

What did she make of the protests against the torch relay in cities like London and Paris earlier this year? "What protests? I never heard about them." And what did she think of those in the West who thought that China should not have been awarded the Games because of the country's human rights record? "Does anyone think that? I've never heard of anyone saying China should not stage the Olympics."

Tianjin, which has successful men's and women's club teams, was a natural choice as a venue for the football tournament. It is an established sporting city, which Hu Shan, a 27-year-old prison officer born and bred here, was more than happy to explain as he walked towards the stadium, his passion evident in his 2008 Olympic headband and face paint. Shan is a devoted fan of both local teams, though he also said he found time to support the national men's and women's sides, Liverpool and, believe it or not, Crystal Palace.

The team he enjoys watching most are the women's national side. "They're a great team and they've had so much success over the years," he said clutching his match ticket in eager anticipation. Shan did not have to wait long to start celebrating. Xu Yuan put China in front inside six minutes and although the outstanding Lotta Schelin equalised before half-time the match was settled by 25-year-old Han's 101st goal in her 161st national appearance. China just about deserved their win. The Swedes looked the more technically accomplished but faded in the energy-sapping conditions.

The air was as smoggy as Beijing's; this was the first day that Tianjin had followed the capital's lead in banning half the city's cars from the roads. Inside the stadium it felt like a sauna: the humidity was stifling and the haze, hanging over the stadium like a cloak, was so thick that you could barely see the seats on the far side. The conditions even seemed to drain the energy of the crowd. The national anthem was sung with respect but hardly with gusto. At times there was as much booing of the Swedes – apparently for no reason other than the fact that they were rather good – as there was cheering of the home side.

Earlier in the afternoon a smaller crowd in the same stadium watched Canada beat Argentina 2-1, giving organisers two chances to test the stringent security measures that will be in force throughout the Games. There were hundreds of security staff, police and soldiers at the entrances.

However, if the experience of the 30-odd reporters and photographers who had made the three-hour bus journey from Beijing was anything to go by, the system clearly needs some fine-tuning. With three hours to go to kick-off and nobody else around to distract the security staff and sniffer dogs manning the gate, it still took more than an hour to pass through. Even then many of the bags were neither searched nor scanned.

Unlike the men's event, which is mostly restricted to under-23 players, the women's Olympic tournament features fully-fledged international teams and is treated with as much respect as the World Cup, which was staged here last year, when Germany beat Brazil in the final. The two countries shared a goalless draw when they met yesterday in Shenyang, while the United States, who are the defending champions, were beaten by Norway in Qinhuangdao. The tournament had to start two days before the opening ceremony in order to be completed on time.

The Premier League is just as popular as the local game here – there were not many replica kits evident in the stadium but Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard shirts stood out – though China can claim a much longer football heritage than Britain. A form of the game known as "cuju" is said to have been played in the Shandong province of Linzi during the West Han Dynasty (not to be confused with any successful spells at Upton Park), while there are frescoes of women playing football during the Dong Han Dynasty.

In recent times the Chinese women have been consistently more successful than their male counterparts. The Steel Roses ignited national interest by winning the first of seven successive AFC Asian Women's Championship finals in 1986, took the silver medal at the Atlanta Olympics and were runners-up in the 1999 World Cup.

Nevertheless, performances have been disappointing in recent years and as a consequence Shang Ruihua, who laid the foundations of the country's success in the early 1990s, was recently reappointed national coach. He is the fourth man in the hot seat in the last 18 months.

The Chinese men's team open their Olympic campaign against New Zealand tonight. There has been huge demand for tickets for the men's matches – queues formed outside the Beijing ticket office two days before they went on sale – and the touts outside the stadium here were selling tickets for today's men's match between the Netherlands and Nigeria, demanding 300 yuan (about £22.40), six times more than face value.

There is no doubting the enthusiasm of the population. "It's a real honour for China to hold the Olympics," said Zang Fei Fei, who works at a shop selling alcohol and cigarettes a few hundred yards from the Tianjin stadium. "I just hope that everything goes well and that the foreign visitors enjoy their stay here."

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