Beijing, China – Jun Tang was 14 when he was first inspired to attend the football World Cup.
He remembers his high school headteacher cancelling afternoon classes so that students could watch China’s World Cup debut in 2002.
“It was a big deal because cancellation of classes rarely happened,” Jun told Al Jazeera.
The teacher even brought his own TV from home because, at that time, we didn’t have one.”
That was the only time China ever featured on the football field in a World Cup. The team failed to score a goal, conceded nine and lost all three matches. Despite the poor show, Jun and his friends were still impressed.
“It was their first time in the World Cup. We were just happy to see them there.”
Now 31, Jun is an artificial intelligence (AI) engineer at a major Chinese tech firm. He is in Russia, watching the World Cup in person for the first time.
“I’m a football fanatic and going to the World Cup is like a religious pilgrimage for me. My life as an AI engineer can be dull but watching football and playing football adds colour to it.”
Jun is one of tens of thousands of Chinese fans attending the World Cup in Russia. According to FIFA, more than 40,000 Chinese fans bought tickets for the 2018 tournament. State media claimed the figure was 60,000, while Russian media estimated 100,000 visitors from China during the World Cup.
It’s the second-biggest turn-out from a non-qualifying country behind the US and a huge increase from the 7,400 tickets sold to Chinese fans in 2014.
“The big turnout dovetails with a few trends, particularly China’s rising middle class and the growth in overseas travel,” said Mark Dreyer, founder of China Sports Insider website.
According to Ctrip, China’s biggest online travel agency, the average Chinese fan will spend around $7,500 on a trip to Russia.
Outbound tourism is now worth about $260bn.
By 2022, it’s predicted that three-quarters of China’s urban will be classified as middle class, with many spending their extra disposable income on travel.
Those who can’t afford to leave home have access to an unprecedented level of World Cup-related services.
Chinese state television CCTV is broadcasting the tournament and other football-related shows, along with online video platforms Youku and Migu.
Restaurants and food markets are offering 24-hour delivery to cater to fans staying up all night to watch the games.
“There’s a growing excitement about the World Cup and people who never usually discuss football are suddenly talking about it and posting about it on social media,” said Dreyer.
The fans aren’t China’s only show of force in Russia. Chinese brands such as mobile phone manufacturer VIVO, real estate giant Wanda and dairy company Mengniu are among FIFA’s top 2018 sponsors, accounting for $835m of the tournament’s $2.4bn advertising revenue.
China’s World Cup sponsorship spending is big, but nothing compared with the grassroots investment taking place.
China is pumping billions into the sport domestically. President Xi Jinping has made no secret of his love for the “beautiful game”.
In 2011, when he was still vice president, Xi expressed three dreams for China: to qualify, host and win a World Cup.
Five years later, China unveiled its plan to become a “soccer powerhouse” by 2050. The blueprint included ambitions for the men’s national team to dominate Asia and for the female team to become one of the leading teams in the world.
But “China’s not going to dominate football because it is throwing money at it”, argued Dreyer.
“It’s simply too competitive. I’d say the best-case scenario is for China to become a top-30 side in the world and, perhaps, the best team in Asia.”
The call to nurture China’s future football stars has been answered by thousands of academies across the country – the country plans to be home to at least 50,000 by 2030.
“China needs to learn from others’ achievements and mistakes, then develop its own style,” said Paulo Swerts, China manager of the Ronaldo Football Academy, a school franchise cofounded by Brazillian football icon Ronaldo Nazario.
“What’s admirable about Brazilian football is the passion, the happiness and the creativity, etc. We can help share that here,” added Swerts, who oversees six Ronaldo academies across China.
“We have a different approach compared to the strict Chinese teaching style. We’ve seen Chinese coaches kicking the ball at kids and yelling at them. We bring a lot of love to the field.”
But many, including Dreyer, are wary of foreign-led academies setting up in China.
“Everyone’s trying to do it and we have to examine the reasons why. Are they trying to help Chinese football succeed or are they trying to make money off the back of the next wave of investment,” said Dreyer.
It may be some time before Jun can cheer on his countrymen at a World Cup. In Moscow, he has planned to link up with a group of 50 other Chinese fans to enjoy the tournament together.
“It’s like going to a cool international party. Simply participating in this grand extravaganza makes us happy.”