There was a soccer story on the front page of Beijing's most popular newspaper today. But it wasn't about the Chinese women's team.

Another Chinese men's team lost to a second-tier foreign club. Score? 2-1.

As American fans shower attention on their women's team, China is turning a conflicted eye toward its own team, which takes on the United States Saturday in the Women's World Cup championship game at the Rose Bowl. While Chinese soccer fans, former stars, cabbies and office workers say they are following the tournament with renewed interest now that their team is in the championship, the soccer mania that has been spreading across the United States isn't catching in Beijing.

"Frankly, we are pretty envious that so many Americans are supporting their women's team," said Zhang Honghong, a former star on the Chinese national team that played -- and lost -- to the U.S. squad in Guangzhou in 1991 when the Americans won the first Women's World Cup. "But actually, the number of girls who play soccer in China is decreasing."

You'd think that China would be ripe for an explosion of patriotic fervor about its women's team, led by forward Sun Wen and superstar goalie Gao Hong. Times are hard in this massive country and it could use a lift. The economy is hurting; China's international prestige is suffering after the West, and even Russia, all but ignored China during the Kosovo crisis. And with the championship game pitting China against the United States, it has all the makings of a classic Cold War competition.

But so far the fervor isn't flowing. Only about 20 fans went to the airport to see the team off to the United States earlier this month. And many people said they will sleep in rather than watch the live telecast of the game, which will air before dawn on Sunday morning Beijing time.

The main problem, many people say, is that the players are women. Most Chinese women don't play soccer, which is considered too masculine, dirty and rough-and-tumble. Only a few high schools and universities in Beijing field women's soccer teams. Girls are encouraged to take up badminton, table tennis, swimming or gymnastics.

Zhang and others said that in recent years the situation for women's soccer has actually gotten worse, as Chinese women have embraced femininity after years of sexless Communism. Gone is the Maoist maxim -- women hold up half the sky.

Even though she runs an association of soccer lovers and is arguably China's biggest fan, Wang Wen "wouldn't encourage my daughter to play soccer," she said. "She likes singing and playing the piano, and that's fine with me."

"I think soccer is a man's sport," said Michelle Yao, an editor of an influential woman's magazine. "As soon as I look at women playing, I hate it. Anyway, men are better."

"Playing soccer you get suntanned and your body changes and you sweat a lot," said Fang Mingchao, an 18-year-old midfielder on China's women's youth team. "Most girls just want to be beautiful."

Add to that attitude the fact that with each victory, the women's team makes the men's team look weaker. No men's team from China has qualified for a World Cup. The impact this failure has had on China's national psyche cannot be overestimated. Think of the effect of the Soviet Union's Sputnik launch on the United States; the effect of the Dodgers' move to Los Angeles on Brooklyn; the effect of twice losing the Washington Senators on the District's pride.

"This is a deep, deep issue," said soccer fan Wang. "This involves the Chinese soul."

Almost every women's soccer success in recent years has been followed by a rash of stories bemoaning the fate of China's men. From 1991 to 1997, China's women won six consecutive Asian championships. "What on earth is wrong with the men?" the state-run China Daily asked. In 1996, Chinese women grabbed the silver medal in the Atlanta Olympics. "Where are the men?" asked the China Sports Daily.

So as the women ascend, China's soccer fans have been looking with an almost masochistic pleasure at their string of victories.

"Whenever there's a women's soccer match on, every pair of eyes is glued to the TV monitors," said Chen Xiaowei, an anchor at China Central Television Station. "We're talking about guys in their early twenties who never used to pay attention to women's games. These are guys tormented for years by their team's failure to win. For them, soccer is national pride. But if you ask them what they think of the women's victories, they'd shrug and say, `I don't know.' I think they're proud and ashamed at the same time."

One reason for the shame is that compared to the women, the men are millionaires. They have two professional leagues and make, on average, $60,000 a year -- a fortune in China. Big Chinese and foreign advertisers back the games, which are often televised nationwide. China's female stars are state employees and make less than $4,000 a year.

"You have to really like the job of being a woman athlete in China," said former soccer star Zhang. "You'll never get rich."

At a soccer game Wednesday night -- where Beijing's Guo'an lost to a scrubby British squad -- Guo Jinzhi, a 44-year-old former soldier, was in the stands with her 20-year-old daughter, Wang Yang.

As the British squad picked apart the Chinese defense, Guo was hard on the women. "They play too soft. Anyway, the government has never taken them seriously. The boys are still more fun to watch."

But Wang Yang disagreed -- perhaps a sign that China's younger generation sees things a little differently. "C'mon, they're winning," she interjected with a proud smile. "And they're girls like me."

CAPTION: A clerk at sporting goods store stands before poster of Sun Wen, China's scoring sensation. Many Chinese women consider soccer too masculine.