BY SILVI WRITER
When the world’s most heavily populated countries meet on the football field for the first time in 21 years, there’s destined to be billions of people interested in the outcome.
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.
The two will meet in Suzhou, in east China, on Saturday for the first time since 1997.
The friendly, also the first time India have played China away, is dubbed the “Earth derby”, by All Football App, China’s most popular football news portal.
Both countries show signs of growing strength in their domestic leagues in recent years, though international success has been limited.
India have never beaten China in 17 attempts and has lost 12 of them.
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.
The coaches of both countries appreciate that hundreds of millions of people will be willing a victory for their team.
“When you are playing for India, you have to take it seriously irrespective of whatever game you play,” said Stephen Constantine, India’s British coach.
“It’s only a friendly game for the world, but not us,” said Constantine, under whom India have improved from 166th in the rankings when he took over in 2015.
Both teams are preparing for the Asian Cup in January in the United Arab Emirates.
China will take on the Kyrgyzstan, the Philippines and South Korea in the group stage. China has never won the Asian Cup but finished the runner-up in 2004, losing 1-3 to Japan in Beijing.
India has qualified for only the second time since 1984. This time India has been grouped with the host nation as well as Bahrain and Thailand. With three teams possibly able to progress to the knockout stage, India is hopeful of doing just that.
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 mad for cricket.
Football is growing in popularity in India. The India Super League started in 2014 and was expanded from eight to 10 clubs this season and the average attendance of just over 20,000 is second only to the Chinese Super League in Asia.
China’s domestic competition has improved in recent years after large investments on foreign stars and coaches that lifted the average attendance to 24,000 so far this season.
While Guangzhou Evergrande won the Asian Champions League in 2013 and 2015, the growing strength of the domestic competition hasn’t yet fed through to the national team despite Marcello Lippi, the 2006 World Cup-winning coach, taking over in 2016.
China missed out on qualification for the 2018 World Cup and the team was harshly criticized, again, in September for a 1-0 loss to an inexperienced Qatar team and then a goalless draw with Bahrain.
Lippi, who recently announced his retirement after his contract expires at the end of the Asian Cup, said he had some concerns about the condition of his players.
“If the Asian Cup starts next week, I would be really worried, but we still have time to improve,” the 70-year-old Italian said.