China makes its debut at the World Cup soccer finals Tuesday, when it plays against Costa Rica. Chinese fans are hoping for victory on the eve of their country's first critical game.

After 44 years of failed attempts to qualify for the World Cup finals, China is about to make what may be its most important appearance yet on the world sports stage.

In Beijing, half a dozen security guards enjoy beers beneath one of the city's many giant outdoor screens set up especially for the World Cup. One of the guards, who requests anonymity, says the Chinese team is ranked last among all those taking part in the games. But the man thanks coach Bora Milutinovic for allowing China to realize its dream of many years. Mr. Milutinovic, a Serb, has led four other countries, including the United States, to the second round of the World Cup. The guard says if China wins against Costa Rica Tuesday, the whole country will pour into the streets in celebration.

China may be one of the lowest-ranked teams at this year's World Cup, but the Chinese comprise the largest fan group, behind only Japan and South Korea, co-hosts of the game.

As many as 40,000 Chinese fans will travel to Seoul for the games. Were it not for strict security measures, game organizers say that number would be even higher.

The Chinese government has reportedly instructed travel agencies to screen out potential trouble makers, such as illegal Chinese immigrants and followers of the banned Falun Gong meditation group.

And at more than $600 for one game, accommodation, and airfare, package tours are too expensive for most Chinese.

At home, tens of millions of Chinese fans have been gathering around television screens at parks or bars each night to watch non-stop coverage of the games.

Fan Qingyu, 27, owner of a cafe in Beijing's Sanlitun, says he has already made many times more money a night than usual by renting a three meter screen to attract die-hard soccer fans. Mr. Fan's customers include four men in their 20s who work at a computer software company. They say they have taken a two week vacation together to watch World Cup play each day. Asked how they will react if China loses Tuesday, one man says there is no chance of that happening, and that he has bet two-to-one odds that China will win.

The Chinese team has tried to dampen expectations among its millions of fans back home. Team members released a letter warning that because of insufficient experience and skill, they might disappoint the public.