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Blogging Beijing

The 2008 Summer Olympics will punctuate three decades of development and test China's global legitimacy. They've already transformed the way millions of people think and live. Seattleite and Fulbright researcher Daniel Beekman brings you Beijing.

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August 14, 2008 11:26 AM

Boos, soccer, star-power at Worker's Stadium

Posted by Daniel Beekman

The boos that filled Beijing's Gongren Tiyuchang (Worker's Stadium) Wednesday night had nothing to do with unrest in Tibet. Or biased western media. Or human rights.

Seven years ago, Amnesty International reported mass sentencing rallies at Worker's Stadium - death row parades. But Wednesday's Olympic crowd - largely Chinese and 50,000-strong - directed its rage at Sergio Batista in a scene less macabre.

Entire sections of striped Argentina supporters - soccer fans here love South America's blue and white squad - turned on Albicelestes. They chanted "MESSI MESSI MESSI," desperate to see the wonder-boy Argentine play.

Batista, Argentina's Olympic coach for the 2008 Games, choose to bench 21-year old striker Lionel Messi and playmaker captain Juan Riquelme rather than risk losing either to injury.

Already through to the tournament's second round thanks to triumphs over Cote d'Ivoire and Australia, Argentina skipped past Serbia 2-0.

Chinese Olympic soccer fans wanted Argentine star Messi to play.

Nigeria advanced after an untimely red card crippled the U.S. squad.

Argentina-Serbia was supposed to be Wednesday's marquee bout, following Nigeria's gritty win against the U.S. earlier in the evening.

Batista's boys are supremely talented and Messi a delight to watch. The diminutive and quick-footed FC Barcelona attacker tallied a goal and an assist in Argentina's first 2008 Olympic match, against Cote d'Ivoire.

Young Chinese nationalists watching across downtown Beijing yelled themselves hoarse during Messi's opening ceremonies march into Beijing's National Stadium last week. My own men's league soccer team - a bunch of local 30-somethings - don modified Argentina kits every weekend.

Hungry fans of all nations jostled in line at KFC before Wednesday's doubleheader.

Looking for Messi, nicknamed El Pulga -'The Flea.'

It took 70 minutes for Gongti's pro-Argentine throng to rally behind the Serbs. Shouts for MESSI crescendoed after halftime, when he and Riquelme began to limber up. But Batista's three substitutions came and went without an appearance by either star.

An Argentine defender deftly flicked the ball backwards - toying with his Serb opponent to a smattering of boos. Soon enough, grade-schoolers and grandpas joined the frustrated chorus.

Whenever Argentina held possession, Worker's Stadium jeered. A bewildered but encouraged Serb team pushed forward to cheers.

Wild-eyed patriots are willing Team China to victory this summer, as numerous foreign journalists have described. Wednesday night was hardly a tribute to loyal collectivism with Chinese characteristics, however.

Wednesday was all about Messi. Wednesday night was all about star-power.

(Note: There were empty seats at Worker's Stadium Wednesday night, as there were Sunday at Beijing's Capital Gymnasium. Two weeks ago, Olympic officials accounced they had sold every one of the record 6.8 million tickets printed for the 2008 Games. So, what's going on?)


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