At the Soccer Buff Cafe, fans stuck 11 candles in 11 bottles of Beijing beer this morning and arranged them around a soccer ball. In the predawn darkness, it looked like an altar to a strange god.
"It's for good luck," explained Wang Wen, the cafe's proprietor. But the charm didn't work.
About 60 fans had gathered at the cafe to watch China and the United States play in the Women's World Cup championship match, which began at 4 a.m. local time. "Gao Hong, add oil! Gao Hong, add oil!" went out the chant to China's goalie.
But even that peculiarly Chinese incantation had little effect. The cafe went silent shortly before 7 a.m., when American Brandi Chastain scored on Gao in a shootout, sealing the fate of the Chinese team.
In a country that is mad about soccer, China has been strangely lukewarm about the success of its women's team. Several years ago, after a defeat by China's men's national team, for example, marauding fans burned down the Soccer Buff Cafe. This morning, however, there were no raised voices or angry oaths. Just a little disappointment, a few complaints and a watermelon rind or two tossed in disgust.
During the game, none of the fans watching raised any of the troubles that have bedeviled relations between China and the United States in recent months -- such as the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia May 7. Some pundits had thought that given the tensions between Washington and Beijing, the Women's World Cup would provide the perfect excuse for a little patriotic fervor. But the fervor didn't flow.
Women's soccer hasn't caught on here because it is considered a man's sport. It is viewed as "unfeminine" in a country where being a tomboy is not exactly the hippest thing to be. Indeed, this morning, a camera crew from China Central Television was dispatched to the cafe to interview men about their views on women playing soccer.
"Well, it is a man's sport, isn't it?" one of the camera crew said.
Of the eight women in the audience at the Soccer Buff, several said they hoped the success of the women's team would prompt China's government to pay more attention to women's sports. In the 1980s, China devoted a lot of resources and cash to developing a women's sports program -- along the lines of other Communist bloc athletic programs. But these days government funding has been cut. And now men get the lion's share of all state hand-outs. The men have a professional soccer league and make well over 10 times the average salary of female players -- even though China's men never have won a World Cup berth. As a result, women's soccer is stumbling here.
"I really hope our nation can support women's soccer, not just on the big games," said Xu Li, a 23-year-old student who rose at 3 a.m. to watch today's game on television. "The women's team gets only a tiny fraction of the men's support."
Like many of the fans today, Xu said she believed China was the better team and that events had conspired against her countrywomen. For one, she said, echoing a complaint that has been common in China, the Chinese team had flown long distances to several matches and was exhausted, whereas the Americans were fresh.
"The quality of our women is much higher than the American team," said Xie Danjiang, a 44-year-old employee of the Beijing city government. "The problem was that they were playing in the United States."
Guo Jinzhi, a 44-year-old demobilized soldier, said she was just really happy to see the Chinese team get so far.
"There's always the next Cup!" she said. "And the one after that."