Suzhou (China): Billion-plus populations but laggards in a truly global sport -- India and China will go head to head in a football friendly for the first time in 21 years on Saturday with the home team a firm favourite despite poor recent form.
The Indian team is playing an international match for the first time in China though their senior sides have faced each other 17 times in the past. China have played in India seven times, all of them in the invitational tournament Nehru Cup.
India will be led by star defender Sandesh Jhingan, coach Stephen Constantine revealed in the pre-match press conference here.
"I think he is going to be one of the leaders for India going forward. Keeping the magnitude of the game in mind, I believe he deserves to lead the team," Constantine said.
India has not won a single match out of the 17 while China has come out trumps 12 on occasions.
Five matches have ended in draws. The senior teams of India and China last played in the 1997 Nehru Cup in Kochi which the 'Red Dragons' won 2-1.
Saturday's match at Suzhou, around 100 km from Shanghai, has attracted a lot of interest among the football fans and the media in the backdrop of the competition between the two countries in several spheres as well as the fact that they are playing a football match for the first time after 1997.
Neighbours India and China account for one-third of the world's population and they are the fastest growing and competing global economies but they have remained "sleeping giants" with nothing much to show at the world stage.
This is more true for India as the country has not featured in a single FIFA World Cup while China has done so once -- in 2002 when they exited from the group stages after losing all their three matches.
Despite being a lesser force on the global stage, China, nonetheless, is one of the established football countries in Asia. The 'Red Dragons' have been consistently among the top-10 in Asia and in the top-100 in the world.
The country is now 76th in FIFA rankings and seventh in Asia.
China has played 11 times in the Asian Cup, the continent's top-flight competition and has finished runners-up twice and third as many times.
India, on the other hand, has played only thrice in the Asian Cup (1964 runners-up; 1984 and 2011) and recently broke into the top 100 in the FIFA rankings after a long time. The country is now 97th in FIFA rankings and 15th in Asia.
It is a bold move on India's part to play against China as they have not played in the recent past against a top side in the continent except in the Asian Cup or the World Cup qualifiers and it is also fraught with consequences.
The match, being played by both sides in the FIFA international friendly window as part of preparations for the AFC Asian Cup in January next month, will test India's 'real' progress and its stake as a country hoping to be among the Asian elite.
"We are fully aware that China are a big side in the region. They will be a very difficult side. They want to play possession football, attacking football," Constantine said.
"We will go all out for a win. But if we lose, we will try to find out the positive aspects." Lead striker and regular skipper Sunil Chhetri, who will take the field as the country's lead striker, wondered just why it took so long for the two countries to play each other.
"We should not afford them much space. At the same time, whenever we find a little room of opportunity, we have to construct the moves and counter them," said Chhetri.
China are the favourites to win tomorrow's match but the home side would know that it cannot be complacent as it has been struggling of late after a 0-1 loss to an inexperienced Qatar last month and then a 0-0 stalemate with Bahrain.
The home team's 2006 World Cup winning Italian coach Marcello Lippi cannot afford to anything other than a win on Saturday with less than three months left for the Asian Cup, which will be his last tournament with the Chinese national side.
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