Fifa World Cup 2018: Chinese fans fly the red flag high – thanks to close relations with Russia
Chinese passport holders granted 14-day visa-free travel by World Cup hosts, who claim 100,000 mainland fans are expected to visit during tournament
Every morning, without fail, the lobby of Moscow’s Hotel Cosmos buzzes with Chinese chatter.
Completed just before the 1980 Olympic Games, Russia’s largest hotel exudes the aura of the bygone Soviet era that is far removed from the more opulent aspects of modern Russian life.
It is here – and at many of the Russian capital’s down-at-heel hotels – that most the Chinese tourists visiting Moscow are accommodated as part of their all-inclusive package tours.
Tour operators hoist their banners in the air as the carousel of checking in and out begins to turn.
Some mill around wearing the Fan ID cards issued to those who have travelled from abroad to Russia for the World Cup; many others do not. The tourist route from China to Russia is well-worn with or without a global sporting event.
Official statistics from the Russian authorities before kick-off claimed around 100,000 people would make the trip from China during the month-long finals and, with Chinese fans conspicuous at every turn, those statistics appeared to be backed up on the ground.
While their own national team have not qualified – yet again – Chinese fans have taken to presenting themselves to the world in any number of ways.
Many have turned out to support favoured teams and players – Argentina, Germany and Spain are among the most common – while others have come to witness the event and fly the red flag high.
“I’m here to support Argentina because I’ve followed them for 25 years,” says Suzhou native Hu Ying who, along with her friend Wang Ting, is part of a group of more than 20 fans travelling together from the Shanghai area to support Lionel Messi and company.
“I’m a fan of Gabriel Batistuta and I’ve followed Argentina ever since he played.
“We’re only here for four days, we just came for one game. I have loved Argentina for so long. Of course, I dream that China can qualify some day and I must support my national team, but until then I’ll support Argentina.”
The tale of Hu Ying, who sports a Chinese flag painted on one cheek and an Argentinian one on the other, is common in Russia and very different to previous World Cups.
When China qualified for the finals in 2002, fans were only permitted to attend games played in South Korea, but with the country’s tourists travelling more regularly the numbers at these finals are unprecedented.
Making things easier are the close relations with Russia, with Chinese passport holders granted 14-day visa-free travel by the hosts.
Dotted among the global throng are red flags, China national team shirts and even the odd Chinese Super League jersey.
“We arrived here on Tuesday and we will stay here for a week,” said Liao Yi outside the Spartak Stadium.
“I’m from Shanghai and my friends are from Chengdu, Beijing and other places. We are Barcelona fans so we have come to support Messi and the Argentina team. And also Javier Mascherano.
“I hope Messi can win the World Cup. It’s difficult, I think, but if they try their best then I’ll be satisfied. Argentina have so many fans in China from the time of Diego Maradona. When I was young, my father and my uncle supported Argentina so they influenced me.
“There are so many reasons China are not here, but I support China too. And if China plays Argentina then I support China. The Chinese government and other people are doing their best to make sure we get better and better.”
While some come to support favourite players or teams, others travel just to bask in the glow of the game’s great global jamboree.
“We’re here because we like football, we love the game,” said Zhao, who travelled to Moscow from Chongqing, ahead of Germany’s meeting with Mexico. “So we’ve come here. I’m the captain of our team and I’m here for five days and my friends are here for a week.
“It might be 10 years before China can play at the World Cup because in our country we want to develop, but there are too many problems. It might take a long time.
“Now we have to pay more attention to kids and players who are 17 or 18 years old. We should send them to Spain or Brazil to practise for a long time and then we can get back to the World Cup.
“This is my first World Cup. I love the passion of everyone here.”