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Posted: Sunday August 24, 2008 7:05PM; Updated: Monday August 25, 2008 10:49AM
Grant Wahl Grant Wahl >
INSIDE OLYMPIC SOCCER

Chinese soccer fans able to laugh

Story Highlights
  • Despite their nation's struggles in soccer, Chinese fans are a savvy bunch
  • One of the crowds' most interesting reactions at the games was the Group Laugh
  • The Chinese tend to support European club teams than their domestic teams
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BEIJING -- Chinese soccer fans are a fun lot.

For one thing, as I learned while traveling to fútbol matches in all five Olympic cities, the Chinese absolutely love the sport in a way that soccer's guardians always hoped it would take off in the United States. Supporters here are a savvy bunch: They roar and whistle at all the right times, they turn out in huge numbers and they respect effort, imagination and daring by all the players, no matter the colors of their jerseys.

But that hardly means they don't have their quirks.

In fact, my favorite oddity of Chinese soccer crowds is something I've decided to call the Group Laugh. Whenever a player stumbles into any sort of gaffe on the field -- tripping over the ball, taking a crippling shot to the groin, skying a cross into the 40th row -- more than 50,000 people will laugh in unison.

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

I heard the Group Laugh everywhere I went: Tianjin, Qinhuangdao, Shenyang, Shanghai, Beijing. It's bizarre. It's unique. It's great. And it sounds exactly like a sitcom laugh track.

If you're a soccer player you're treated like a rock star in China -- unless you happen to be a player on the sad-sack Chinese men's team. For some reason the Chinese basketball team can get drilled by 30 points by the U.S. men and the home fans will still cheer their team like crazy. But Chinese soccer fans are hilariously self-loathing in a way that humanizes the people of this country. Get them talking about the latest Chinese soccer embarrassment and they won't stop ranting.

"They are rubbish!" one female SI China staffer told me after the Chinese men failed to win a game at the Olympics, just two months after China had been eliminated from qualifying for the 2010 World Cup.

It's a long-running tale of woe. The Chinese were sure they had sealed their first World Cup berth before the 1982 tournament, knowing that New Zealand would have to beat Saudi Arabia by five goals in the last qualifier to keep them from clinching. The Kiwis won 5-0, then sent China packing in a one-game playoff. Then in 1985 China endured the indignity of being eliminated by tiny neighbor Hong Kong, setting off Beijing's worst riots since the death of Zhou Enlai.

Who knew this was a nation of a billion Jets fans?

I thought things had changed when I first came to China in 2002 to write a story on coach Bora Milutinovic, who had led the Chinese men to their first World Cup qualification and become the most popular man in the country.

But Bora's Boys lost all three games in the 2002 World Cup, and the team has fallen back on hard times ever since. My SI China colleague Jiang Yi tells me that the Chinese league, once popular in the 1990s, has lost millions of fans who prefer European club soccer and don't want to invest their time in a domestic league that has been plagued by corruption scandals.

For all the negativity, though, there's almost always an undercurrent of gallows humor -- a Group Laugh, if you will -- surrounding the Chinese men's national team. It's the kind of suffering that's universal to sports fans, the kind that can't help but bring a smile to your face.

And it's not just confined to the fans, either. Just ask Chinese midfielder Li Weifeng. After China's 3-0 Olympic loss to Brazil, he summed up the feelings of a nation.

"We play soccer," he said, "like the Brazilians play ping-pong."

 
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