China vs India: A clash of football's biggest minnows

The game in Suzhou, near Shanghai, will be the first time India will play China away and the first match between their senior sides in 21 years.

Members of the Indian football team pose after arriving in China.   -  AIFF MEDIA

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 hosts its Asian rival in a friendly that the home side is under huge pressure to win, and win well.

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The game in Suzhou, near Shanghai, will be the first time India will play China away and the first match between their senior sides in 21 years. India has 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 is 97th in FIFA's rankings and China 76 -- sandwiched between Zambia and Lebanon -- underlining how far adrift both are of the global elite.

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“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.

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.

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But regional bragging rights are at stake and with both teams playing January's AFC 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.”

- Lippi under pressure -

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.

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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. However, failure to beat India on Saturday could herald a swifter end to his tenure.

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