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Posters pop up around China, like this one seen on Wednesday in Weifang, Shandong province, promoting the upcoming 2018 World Cup in Russia. ZHANG CHI/FOR CHINA DAILY

Chinese fans may be accustomed to a World Cup without Team China, but the World Cup would never be the same without Chinese fans. That is especially the case for the upcoming extravaganza hosted by one of China"s neighbors.

The disappointment of the nation failing to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup did not stop tens of thousands of Chinese soccer fans from flying to Russia for their soccer dream trip.

Of the 2,403,116 World Cup tickets released between September and Friday, 40,251 had been sold to Chinese fans, according to FIFA. That made them the ninth biggest fan group in ticket sales. Russian fans ranked first with 871,797 tickets, followed by United States fans with 88,825 tickets. Another 100,000 tickets were still on sale.

Some 60,000 Chinese fans have planned to attend matches of the World Cup, which will kick off on Thursday, Yuri Tsurkan, the chairman of the Russian-Chinese Tourism Promotion Association"s council, told Russian news agency Tass.

"We hadn"t expected that China, whose team is not going to the championship, would demonstrate such strong interest. According to our association, it is about 60,000 to 70,000 (fans)," Tsurkan said.

He also stressed that the passion of Chinese fans "has exceeded all expectations", and the exact number of Chinese fans attending the matches will be clear only after the end of the World Cup.

Chinese soccer fan Zuo Ziyang even asked his boss for leave in order to watch the competition between the world"s soccer powerhouses in Russia.

"I actually don"t have a vacation during the World Cup period, so I had to ask my boss for leave," Zuo told China Daily. "Of course I chose the World Cup instead of work.

"I will arrive at St. Petersburg on June 13 and stay in the country for five days with my girlfriend to watch the game between Portugal and Spain. I will also explore the country to experience its culture and customs. Of course I support the Chinese team, and it"s a pity that we failed to qualify again. Personally, I like the French team and hope that they will have a great performance."

Free transportation will be provided for spectators and many of the seats have been booked by Chinese fans.

The Transport Directorate of FIFA World Cup Russia 2018 said in April that 728 trains operating on more than 30 routes between the 11 host cities have been reserved for free transportation of fans, making over 440,000 seats available during the World Cup.

The Federal Passenger Co, which organized the fan train rides, said in May that the company was seeing a rising demand from Chinese fans, according to Pyotr Ivanov, its director general. Most of the free tickets had been booked by Russian fans, followed by Colombian and Argentine fans. Chinese fans were sixth, he said.

Getting into Russia also has been made easier. FAN ID, an identification document required by Russian authorities, provides visa-free entry to Russia for foreign tourists who have purchased match tickets. Such fans will be able to enter and remain in the country starting 10 days before the first match and ending 10 days after the last match.

Tourism boom

The passion of Chinese soccer fans has led to a boom of Chinese tourists in Russia.

Sales of airline tickets from China to Moscow and St. Petersburg have risen by nearly 50 percent, while overall sales of airline tickets from China to Russia increased over 400 percent, said Ctrip, China"s largest online travel service.

Including World Cup spectators, the total number of Chinese tourists to Russia from June to August is expected to reach 100,000. Shanghai is the location that has provided the biggest number of Chinese tourists, followed by Beijing. Other major sources are Guangzhou and Shenzhen in Guangdong province and Chengdu in Sichuan province.

Hotels near the World Cup"s main stadiums are nearly fully booked, so some Chinese tourists chose to visit Russia in August, right after the final competition. As a result, the number of Chinese tourists to Russia in August increased over 35 percent year-on-year.

Moscow has been the most popular choice´╝Źthe number of hotel bookings in Moscow soared over 10 times compared with the same period last year. Hotels near soccer stadiums have nearly sold out, and about only 10 percent of hotels in other areas still have empty rooms, according to Ctrip.

Hotel prices in Moscow, where the final game will be held, have soared as much as 200 percent. In St. Petersburg, host of the semifinal game, the volume of hotel bookings surged more than five times year-on-year. The average price of a hotel per night in those cities is above 1,000 yuan ($156), Ctrip said.

Moreover, Chinese tourists have already spent big on World Cup trips, laying out amounts from thousands of yuan to nearly a million.

Average spending reached 50,000 yuan on Ctrip alone, with the top spender so far, who is from Xiamen, Fujian province, having spent about 850,000 yuan on the trip.

Notably, 57 percent of the fans are female, which appears to show an increase in female soccer fans in China, officials said.

"I see my friends show off their airline tickets to Russia or World Cup souvenirs basically every day on social media," said Ge Siwen, a dedicated soccer fan who has already spent a lot on jerseys and other soccer paraphernalia.

"Things have changed. In times past, we didn"t have money to spend on the World Cup, and it was too far away. But this time, the World Cup is so close and not that expensive.

"The World Cup is huge even to those in China who are not familiar with soccer. It"s becoming a hot topic in China and if you know nothing about it or you never talk about it, you will be a joke among your friends."

Ticket sales

World Cup official hospitality packages that include tickets have been hot commodities in China. They include additional services in seating, catering and transportation.

Beijing Shankai Sports International Ltd, China"s only FIFA-authorized sales agency, has sold about 10,000 ticket packages with different levels of hospitality services since last fall. It reached over 100 million yuan in revenue, tripling the sales of similar packages for the Union of European Football Associations championship in 2016.

China has become the second biggest buyer of official World Cup hospitality services after Russia, according to Shankai Sports.

"It appeals greatly to China"s affluent fans to enjoy a match in reserved prime seats at each stadium, coupled with special offerings of food and services, which redefines the premier match-watching experience in comfort and style," said Zheng Lai, vice-president of Shankai.

"With or without their national team, Chinese fans" passion for the tournament and their interest in going to the World Cup to watch their favorite players in the flesh is always strong," he said.

Shankai provides five levels of packages, ranging from $850 to $24,900, for fans in China.

"I"ve already bought a ticket for each of four World Cup group matches, costing about 700 yuan for each game," said Qi Duanhua, a Chinese student studying in Russia.

"I will go with two or three of my friends. I never thought the World Cup would be this close to me. I bought tickets for the group match between Germany vs Mexico. If I had to pick one, I hope Germany could defend its title."

Time no problem

For fans very far from Russia and those who cannot get away from their jobs, the World Cup is a must-watch on TV and the internet.

Unlike with many championships, Chinese fans don"t have to wait until the wee hours to watch the action. While the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and the 2014 World Cup in Brazil had fans up at odd hours, the Russian edition has blessed Chinese fans with only a five-hour time difference between Moscow and Beijing.

"Finally, my friends and I don"t have to stay up all night to watch the World Cup," said Zhu Zimu, an English teacher and soccer fan. "I still have to work during the World Cup, so I cannot go to Russia. However, unlike before, I"m not worried about watching the live broadcast of the games.

"The time difference is acceptable, so I can enjoy game after game with my friends. It will also be more convenient if we want to go a bar, and I don"t have to worry about being too sleepy at work the next day."

It"s also good news for restaurants around China, which have already planned all sorts of discounts and activities to attract fans to watch live broadcasts while enjoying food and drink.

The timing is perfect for crawfish restaurant Daxialaile because the soccer championship coincides with the best season for its specialty food.

"The World Cup from June to July is made for crawfish," said Dai Jinsheng, CEO of Daxialaile. "To meet the demand of World Cup fans, we will provide them with a special environment including themed decoration and large-screen television. Also, a special crawfish and beer combo meal and discount will also be arranged. Other activities and games are also expected."