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'Too tragic'

Beijing stays up late, laments loss to U.S. women

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Posted: Sunday July 11, 1999 10:59 AM

  More than just a game: Fans outside a Beijing restaurant react with tears after China's loss in the World Cup. AP

BEIJING (AP) -- It happened to Italian superstar Roberto Baggio. And on Sunday it happened to China's Liu Ying too.

Both missed crucial penalty kicks in the same stadium -- California's Rose Bowl -- handing World Cup championships to opposing teams. In China's case, the miss meant losing the cup 4-5 to the United States after 120 minutes of hard-fought, scoreless play.

The Baggio defense was on the lips of Chinese sports fans and media, tempering the bitter loss of what many saw as a grudge match between two rivals on the field and two countries locked in political disputes. The message was clear: There was honor in being No. 2.

"Not bad Chinese girls," read the front-page headline in the Beijing Evening News, the only newspaper in the Chinese capital that published late enough Sunday to carry word of the defeat, which occurred shortly before 7 a.m.

Underneath ran a photograph of U.S. President Bill Clinton meeting members of the Chinese team after their defeat.

Sportsmanship is by no means the assured reaction to defeat in China. Stoked by decades of communist propaganda, Chinese tend to see victory in international sports as proof of China's national strength. And there was still plenty of anger, some of it ugly.

"Bomb the U.S. Embassy," read one message posted on a popular Chinese Internet site minutes after the loss in a call for revenge for the NATO bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia two months ago.

"Put a missile in their net," businessman Wang Jilei shouted at the TV screen in the Soccer Buff's Cafe, a regular haunt of sports fans in a working-class neighborhood in south Beijing.

Fans in other bars shouted expletives at U.S. team members. Some hurled racist epithets at U.S. goalkeeper Briana Scurry.

They repeated a list of suspicions aired by state media in the run-up to the match: the American referees were biased; China's players were starved for decent Chinese food, and tournament organizers tired the Chinese team by making them crisscross the United States four times in earlier rounds.

But the Beijing Evening News lined up the same evidence to attest to the mettle of the Chinese players.

"This second spot did not come easily," the tabloid-style newspaper said.

China Central Television opened its first nationwide newscast after the match with footage not of the loss but Baggio missing the penalty kick that helped lose Italy the 1994 World Cup to Brazil.

"It's a normal thing to lose on penalty kicks. Even Italy's greatest star, Baggio, missed a penalty kick in a World Cup. That's not so bad," said Wang Zhanjun, an unemployed factory worker who runs a fan club for a Beijing men's team. "It's an honor for the Chinese people."

In the end, the food, the travel, even the 32-degree (90-degree) heat didn't matter, said fan Meng Xianyou. "The Chinese team played well."

Chinese President Jiang Zemin set a positive tone, promising the Chinese players in a pre-game telephone call that they would get a hero's welcome whether they won or not.

For China's communist leaders, the game was an opportunity to take the high ground. With intractable economic problems at home, they couldn't risk more furious public protests outside the U.S. Embassy like the ones that followed the bombing, which the United States calls a tragic accident. And U.S. officials are due in Beijing this week to discuss compensation for China's losses, a face-saving demand of the leadership.

"For a long time, we have linked sports and politics too often. We're always thinking of winning for the glory of the country," said one message posted by someone called "Chu Shou" on the Internet. "But for our women's team to play so well in such an important game is already an honor for our country."

 
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