GUANGZHOU, June 14 (Xinhua) -- Thousands of Chinese fans flew to Moscow and millions more will be in front of their televisions for the start of the 2018 FIFA World Cup on Thursday, but few will remember that almost exactly 40 years ago, Chinese football opened a window to the world.
In May 1978, West Bromwich Albion (WBA) became the first team from a top European league to visit China. 40 years later, the club is now owned by Palm, a Chinese eco-town developer.
WBA legend Ally Robertson was recently invited by Palm to return to China to commemorate the 40-year anniversary. As Robertson recalls it, it was not an easy trip for the English side 40 years ago. It took them three days to travel from London. They flew via Rome, Bahrain and Calcutta to Hong Kong, where they stayed overnight and then finally took a train to Guangzhou.
The English club played five matches in China. They defeated the Chinese national team 2-0 at Beijing's Worker's Stadium in front of a crowd of 89,100.
"Back in 1978, there were no seats, only concrete steps for the nearly 90,000 fans to sit on. Now it is an impressive all-seater stadium with a capacity of only 100,000," the 65-year old said.
Robertson was in central defense for his team in that match nearly 40 years ago. Back then, "professional league" was an unfamiliar expression for Chinese people, even for the national team players. It was a shock for the fans as well as the players.
"It was the first time we had a chance to face an English football team, it was simple but also the most advanced football we had ever seen," said Liu Lifu, who played in that match.
40 years later, a revolution in Chinese football has ignited the enthusiasm of the Chinese people. China's own Chinese Super league (CSL) has already become the most attractive league in Asia and the sixth most popular league worldwide, with an average attendance of 23, 100.
A total of nine players from the Chinese Super League will be competing at the World Cup. Although China has not qualified for the world's biggest football tournament, Belgium's duo Axel Witsel and Yannick Carrasco will feature heavily in the showpiece event.
Much more than football has changed in China during the 40 years. "Nothing could quite prepare me for how much the country has changed in the space of just four decades," Robertson said. "Back when we were there as part of the first English football team to tour the country, Beijing was full of bicycles. Now it is clogged with cars everywhere you look. There are high-rise buildings where there were once small homes and huts, while everyone who lives there seems to have a minimum of three mobile phones," he added.