Coach Marcello Lippi calls for China to defend nation’s honour in key World Cup qualifier
Group B strugglers entertain South Korea at Hunan’s He Long Stadium in Changsha province amid heightened security and political tension
Coach Marcello Lippi has declared China “are defending the honour of 1.4 billion Chinese people” as the under pressure side seek to maintain their slim hopes of qualifying for the 2018 Fifa World Cup against South Korea in Changsha on Thursday amid heightened security as political tensions between the two nations continue to rise.
At the halfway stage of the campaign, China find themselves rooted to the foot of group A with just two points from five games, having draw at home to Qatar last time out in November but having also lost at home to Syria a month prior.
Iran and South Korea top group B, with the leading two sides earning automatic qualification for Russia next year, with China seven points adrift of the third place which offers a route to the finals via two play-off matches.
But with the match important for China’s hopes of a return to the World Cup for the first time since their only appearance in 2002, as well as the general image of the game following significant investment into the Chinese Super League this season, it has taken on another aspect.
Relations with China deteriorated after South Korea agreed with the United States to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) anti-missile system in the country, which has kick-started a series of retaliations from Beijing, meaning the game at He Long Stadium in Changsha will be played surrounded by “unprecedented” security.
“I know what happened in the first game, but we won’t take that into account,” said Lippi, who was not in charge when China lost 3-2 in Seoul in September.
“Tomorrow’s game is the most important and our mentality is very crucial. I have repeated that very often to the players since day one and they have to forget about all the pressure and fear.
“They are defending the honour of 1.4 billion Chinese people. Once they put on the jersey they have to give their best. We are worse than no one in Asia as long as they play at their true level.”
China’s defeat by South Korea came under Lippi’s predecessor Gao Hongbo, with the World Cup-winning Italian appointed in October after the back-to-back defeats by Syria and Uzbekistan.
The former Guangzhou Evergrande coach oversaw the goalless draw at home to Qatar as well as the subsequent friendly defeat by Iceland and draw with Croatia in January, although these games were played without the majority of his first team squad.
China continue their campaign with a testing trip to Tehran next week to face unbeaten Iran, who are Asia’s number one ranked side, and defeats in both matches would all but end any hopes of progress.
“If we want to keep our dream of qualifying for the next year’s World Cup alive, we have to win three points tomorrow and my players and I both know that,” added Lippi, with China currently ranked 86th in the world, Iran 33rd and South Korea 40th.
“As I said before, some of our players have fatigue after competing in both the AFC Champions League and Chinese Super League. Our whole medical group are trying their best to help them to recover now.
“Most of the players will be able to play in tomorrow’s game, those who can’t play tomorrow will get prepared for the game against Iran.”
The Hunan Sports Administration have called for fans to “express your emotions in a civilised and peaceful way” while urging spectators not to “display insulting slogans”.
“South Koreans staying in or visiting China must ensure they cheer on the national team in as orderly a fashion as possible,” South Korea’s embassy in Beijing said, Yonhap reported.
Around 180 South Korean supporters are expected for the game, with Chinese police set to escort the fans, who have agreed only to wear their official “supporters’ uniform” inside the stadium.
“For our players, they will receive the usual protection involving police officers when they travel from the airport to the hotel and to the match venue,” said Korean Football Association spokesman Seol Dong-cheol.