China and India, football’s biggest minnows, in rare clash
China and India together account for more than a third of the world’s population, but in football terms, they are minnows often beaten by countries a fraction of their size.
Their struggles will be laid bare on Saturday when China host their Asian rivals in a friendly that the home side are under huge pressure to win, and win well.
The game in Suzhou, near Shanghai, will be the first time India have played China away and the first match between their senior sides in 21 years.
India have never beaten China in 17 attempts.
It may not be a match for the cognoscenti, but the coaches of both countries appreciate that hundreds of millions of people will be willing a victory for their team.
India are 97th in FIFA’s rankings and China 76 — sandwiched between Zambia and Lebanon — underlining how far adrift both are of the global elite.
“It’s only a friendly game for the world, but not us,” said Stephen Constantine, India’s British coach.
“When you are playing for India, you have to take it seriously irrespective of whatever game you play.
“You are representing 1.4 billion people out there and I can’t tell you how important the game is for us,” added Constantine, under whom India have improved from 166th in the rankings when he took over in 2015.
India’s previous game saw them beaten 2-1 last month by the Maldives, an Indian Ocean archipelago of fewer than 500,000 people.
China’s unbridled footballing ambitions come from the top: President Xi Jinping is a big fan of the sport and has vowed to make the country one of its superpowers.
It is not the same story in India, where football is not even the most popular sport — the country is cricket-mad.
But regional bragging rights are at stake and with both teams playing January’s Asian Cup, the continent’s top international football competition, the clock is ticking.
“Friendly or no friendly, it’s the India national team,” said Constantine.
“We will go all out.”
The man under most scrutiny is an Italian, Marcello Lippi, the handsomely paid but increasingly maligned coach of China.
The 70-year-old has been in charge for two years, but after a promising start, he has overseen a poor run of two wins in six games.
That included a 6-0 thrashing at home to Wales and an underwhelming 0-0 draw with Bahrain — population 1.5 million — in September.
Lippi, who steered Italy to World Cup glory in 2006, recently told Italian media that he will likely retire after the Asian Cup in the United Arab Emirates.
But failure to beat India could herald a swifter end to his tenure.
With a reported annual salary of between $23 million and $27 million — one of the highest in football — Chinese media and fans feel short-changed.
Bai Guohua, a reporter for Soccer News, called it “a must-win” match.
“Lippi has no time to pay attention to Chinese football’s ‘long-term planning’,” wrote Bai.
“He only needs to assemble a team with combative abilities within the next two months and strive to get good results at the Asian Cup.
“Then he can retire as mission accomplished.”