Tight security for explosive China-South Korea clash
Political tension in the air as both teams prepare for World Cup qualifier in Changsha
Chinese authorities have stepped up security for today's tense World Cup qualifier against South Korea, whose fans will receive a police escort after protests over Seoul's decision to deploy a controversial missile defence system.
The clash between the neighbouring countries is the most anticipated of this round of Asian matches, which also include Australia's trip to Iraq and Japan's revenge mission against the United Arab Emirates.
But the match in Changsha takes place at a time of considerable bad blood with South Korea, who angered China by agreeing to deploy a US missile defence system in response to concern over the growing missile threat from North Korea.
The Chinese team's precarious position raises the stakes further: They are rock-bottom of Group A and staring at elimination from next year's World Cup - despite the government's no-expense-spared drive to turn the country into a football powerhouse.
Chinese officials have urged fans to "display rational patriotism" for the game against South Korea, who are second in the group and whose supporters have been warned to stick together for their own safety.
"Treat victory like defeat with reason. Express your emotions in a civilised and peaceful way," the Hunan Sports Administration said.
"Don't display insulting slogans."
The political row is an added irritant for Chinese supporters who have watched their team struggle in the final qualifying pool, with no wins in their five games and only two goals so far.
China's World Cup-winning coach Marcello Lippi, hired together with his team on reported pay of 20 million euros (S$30.2m) a year, knows his 86th-ranked team's chances of qualifying are slim.
Only the top two in the six-team group gain automatic entry to next year's World Cup, with the third-placed side going into a play-off series, meaning defeat would leave China in need of a miracle.
The Chinese have won just once in 31 attempts against South Korea.
"If you look at the group standings and head-to-head record, we have superior results against China," said South Korea coach Uli Stielike, according to Korea's Yonhap news agency.
"I asked our players not to be intimidated and keep the ball in possession."
Helong Stadium has stepped up security ahead of the match.
Yesterday afternoon, a three-metre high fence surrounded the training pitches behind the venue, which was patrolled by groups of as many as 20 security guards.
About 180 South Korean supporters are expected at the stadium and they have been urged to take "extra caution" to avoid causing trouble.
"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 in a safety warning to fans, Yonhap reported.
The Korea Football Association (KFA) said Chinese police would escort South Korean spectators, who had agreed to travel together and wear only 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 a KFA spokesman.
South Korea will be without suspended Tottenham forward Son Heung Min, while Lippi has called up Vitesse Arnhem striker Zhang Yuning.
Meanwhile in Group B, UAE are looking to build on their shock 2-1 win over four-time Asian champions Japan in Saitama in September.
"All we're thinking about is beating Japan again because that's the key to qualifying for the World Cup," UAE midfielder and Asian player of the year Omar Abdulrahman told Fifa's website.
Asian title-holders Australia play Iraq in Teheran looking to climb into Group B's top two places, currently occupied by Saudi Arabia and Japan. - AFP
- Syria v Uzbekistan
- Qatar v Iran