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Chinese "volunteer army" arrive to back North Korea

PRETORIA (Reuters) - Hundreds of Chinese soccer fans, including artists and well known singers, have arrived in South Africa to lend their support to North Korea in their opening World Cup match against Brazil on Tuesday.

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Dubbed the ‘fans volunteer army’ back home, many stayed in Pretoria overnight and will meet up with fellow Chinese supporters in Johannesburg to back isolated North Korea in their mouthwatering first game at Ellis Park.

“The Chinese will support North Korea,” Wang Qi of the China Sports Event Management Group told Reuters in an interview through a translator, braving the cold morning air.

“They may surprise and we come here with a view that something magical might happen.”

The North Korean sports ministry authorized a Chinese sports PR agency to sell tickets for the game as few North Koreans could afford the journey or receive visas to leave the country.

China, who did not qualify for the tournament, is the sole major economic and political supporter of North Korea and millions of Chinese, technically volunteers, fought alongside their eastern neighbors in the Korean War of the 1950s.

“When it comes to support in worldwide competitions, Chinese fans will stand for the Asia teams,” Bi Fujian, one of the most popular television anchors in China, told Reuters TV before leaving for the trip.

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“Not to mention that 60 years ago, China’s military forces valiantly crossed the Yalu River to fight alongside the North Koreans against their enemies.

“Sixty years on, we cheer for their football team and hope they will go far.”

North Korea is likely to need the support.

Competing in their first World Cup since they reached the quarter-finals in 1966 in England, they have been drawn in Group G -- the toughest section containing five-times champions Brazil, Portugal and Ivory Coast.

But the North Koreans, the lowest-ranked team at the tournament, do have a reputation for fitness and strong defense and they have been training together for four months on a tour across three continents.

“There is a mystery story about North Korea so no one knows what to expect,” Wang said.

Reporting by Kate Holton, editing by Ken Ferris