A friendly for China and India has billions interested
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.
And that's just in China and India. Soccer's two biggest sleeping giants meet on Saturday for the first time since 1997. Representing about one-third of the world's population, India and China both show signs of growing strength in their domestic leagues, though international success has been limited.
It is the Indian national squad's first visit to China and a chance to see if India has closed the gap on the stronger teams from the continent. The so-called international friendly in Suzhou, near Shanghai, is a big deal for Stephen Constantine, the English coach guiding India's team.
"You play for India," Constantine told a media conference before his squad left for China. "If you play chess or backgammon, you take it seriously. You are representing 1.4 billion people. I can't tell you the importance that I put on these games, friendly or no friendly."
Both teams are preparing for the Asian Cup in January in the United Arab Emirates. 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.
"We are capable of getting out of the group," Constantine said. "It won't be easy but that is our aim."
Playing China, a country that has never won the Asian Cup but did reach the final in 2004, should give the Indian players a good idea of the standard expected in January. India has never beaten China in international football, but seems to be closing the gap.
"China is obviously a good side," Constantine said. "They play some good football . it's going to be a difficult game for us but these are the games that we have to play under pressure. They are a great indication of where we are and how far we need to go."
Constantine returned to India for a second stint in charge of the national team in January 2015 and has led the squad from No. 173 in FIFA's world rankings to No. 97, which is 21 places behind China. India secured a spot at the Asian Cup by winning its group in qualifying and Constantine had a chance to look at young players in September's South Asian Cup.
Soccer is growing in popularity in India. The national team's last home game attracted a capacity crowd against Kenya in Mumbai in June. 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 criticized in September for a 1-0 loss to an inexperienced Qatar team and then a 0-0 stalemate 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," Lippi said.