Wednesday, March 15, 2006

World Cup trophy makes historical debut in China

There could have been no more fitting a place for Beijing to stage its grand welcome of the FIFA World Cup? Trophy on Tuesday than the China Millennium Monument.

The monument, built in the west of the capital in 2000 to mark the arrival of the new millennium, was one of the places where people congregated to celebrate Beijing's successful bid to host the 2008 Olympic Games on the memorable night of 13 July 2001 – among them the former president Jiang Zemin.

Some five years on and people flocked here again for another big sporting moment - the first visit to China of the authentic FIFA World Cup Trophy. "This is just the ideal place to stage the welcome to this iconic Trophy," said Coca-Cola China vice-president Brenda Lee.

For China national youth team coach Jia Xiuquan, one of the football luminaries present, the stopover in Beijing was a timely boost to football in the country after their national team missed out on the forthcoming FIFA World Cup in Germany.

"With the Trophy coming here, excitement about the new season is running high," the former Chinese international striker said. "In the opening round of the new season last weekend, we saw the stadiums close to full and a lot of closely fought matches, something to suggest a fruitful year in front of us. The visit of the Trophy will unquestionably encourage our players to work harder to reach their goal of going back to the World Cup."

The authenticity of the Trophy caused great excitement among members of the audience, many of whom remembered the FIFA World Cup being displayed here on the eve of France 98. Then it was a replica and FIFA spokesman Emmanuel Maradas confirmed that this was the first time the real Trophy had been displayed in China.

"This is the one that the Brazil team won in Yokohama four years ago and the one that the winning team will lift in Berlin on 9 July this year. It is a once-in-a-lifetime chance for any football lovers to see the crown of football within touching distance."

Huang Bowen, a China U19 defender, joined the large crowd queuing to view the Cup and have their photo taken with it. "As a little boy I watched the French team lift the Trophy after defeating Brazil in the Final at France 98. I can't believe I'm so close to it now."

As the Trophy was unveiled amid a flurry of flashbulbs and applause, Jia Xiuquan – whose playing days were back in the 1980s - recalled with a touch of regret: "I played in two qualifying competitions for the World Cup finals but we failed to make it on both occasions. I did play in the Asian Cup and Olympic football tournament so the World Cup was the one I missed out on.

If that was yesterday the China Football Association is looking to tomorrow and its vice-president Nan Young said at the press conference: "We worked hard for fully 50 years to get to the FIFA World Cup. Our efforts were rewarded when we booked our first-ever finals place at Korea/Japan 2002 but despite that breakthrough, we still have our work cut out as we are far behind the world powers."

Football journalist Fang Zhao spoke hopefully of the future when noting that the fact China had been chosen as one of the 29 countries on the Trophy Tour showed that FIFA recognised its huge potential. "We have arguably the world's largest group of football fans and consequently the biggest market so it won't be long before we develop enough to reach the top level."

Explaining FIFA's decision to include Beijing on the tour's itinerary, Emmanuel Maradas said: "We put Beijing on the list because China has made a huge contribution to football development as a FIFA member. In 1985 China hosted the inaugural FIFA U17 World Championship which was won by Nigeria. Its potential can't be underestimated as China is the world's most populous country and is in the process of rapid change in all areas."

Youngster Huang Bowen is hopeful that the development of Chinese football will only accelerate, and earned himself one of the biggest cheers of the day when he said: "I hope one day I can again be with the Trophy - but next time by winning it."


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