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 Maldives,
an Indian Ocean archipelago of less 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
"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
That included a 6-0 thrashing at home to Wales and an
underwhelming 0-0 draw with Bahrain -- population 1.5 million --
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
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"
"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
"Then he can retire as mission accomplished."