China and Japan battle for Asia's top football trophy in China Saturday evening, and the pre-game atmosphere has been electric as Chinese fans turn out in full force to support their national team. Officials hope national rivalries will not get out of hand.
The grounds of Beijing Worker's Stadium is awash with red Chinese flags, as Chinese fans gear up for the highly anticipated final match against defending champion Japan.
In the streets of the capital, Chinese fans are rallying pedestrians to support the national team.
Hawkers are enjoying a roaring business selling Chinese flags, binoculars, stickers, horns, stamps and traditional snacks.
Tickets to the 66,000 seat stadium are already sold out. Foreigners and Chinese arriving from outside the capital are being greeted by scalpers offering tickets at huge mark-ups. Some are wary that the tickets might be fake, but others are buying anyway.
Japanese fans were barely visible near the stadium early Saturday, however, even though thousands are expected to attend the game itself. The match has taken on political overtones, with Chinese fans expressing lingering resentment over Japan's brutal occupation of China during the 1930s and 1940s.
Some Chinese carried anti-Japanese banners during the elimination rounds, and Japanese players were jeered and pelted with garbage during matches in Jinan and Chongqing.
At a news conference Friday, Peter Vellapan, the secretary-general of the Asian Football Federation, expressed the hope that sport would prevail over nationalist sentiment.
"We have noted the incidents in Jinan and Chongqing involving the Japanese match, but we hope that you will see a truly wonderful Asian Cup final, without any political overtones," said Mr. Vellapan.
Tokyo has asked Beijing to make sure its players and Japanese spectators are protected. Chinese officials have appealed for calm ahead of the event, and editorials in Saturday's state-owned newspapers said sports and politics should be separated.
Just to be safe, thousands of police have been deployed to keep the peace.
Sixteen nations participated in this year's Asian Cup, and this is the first time in 20 years that China has made it to the finals. Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam will jointly host the next Asian Cup in 2007.