Soc­cer crazy China and In­dia in rare clash

Bil­lions of fans have yet to pro­pel teams to in­ter­na­tional glory

Global Times - Weekend - - SPORTS -

China and In­dia to­gether ac­count for more than a third of the world’s pop­u­la­tion, but in soc­cer terms they are min­nows of­ten beaten by coun­tries a frac­tion of their size.

Their strug­gles will be laid bare on Satur­day when China host In­dia 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 In- dia 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 Mal­dives, an In­dian Ocean ar­chi­pel­ago of less than 500,000 peo­ple.

China has a large num­ber of soc­cer fans.

It is not the same story in In­dia, where soc­cer 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 soc­cer 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 soc­cer – Chi­nese me­dia and fans feel short-changed.

Bai Guo­hua, a re­porter for Soc­cer News, called it “a must­win” match.

“Lippi has no time to pay at­ten­tion to Chi­nese soc­cer’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.”

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