Changsha on alert - Tight security for China's clash with South KoreaSports | 23 Mar 2017
Chinese authorities have stepped up security for tonight's tense football World Cup qualifier against South Korea, whose fans will receive a police escort after protests over Seoul's decision to deploy a controversial missile defense system.
The match in Changsha, in Hunan Province, takes place at a time of considerable bad blood with South Korea, which angered China when it agreed with America to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense in response to concern over the growing missile threat from North Korea.
The Chinese team's parlous position raises the stakes still further: they are rock-bottom of Group A and look likely to miss out on Russia 2018 - despite the government's no-expense-spared drive to turn the country into a football powerhouse.
Coach Marcello Lippi sought to bolster player confidence ahead of the "most important" game under his tenure.
"Our mentality is crucial," Lippi said. "They have to forget about all the pressure and fear. They are defending the honor of 1.4 billion Chinese people ... We are worse than no one in Asia as long as they play at their true level."
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 civilized and peaceful way," the Hunan Sports Administration said. "Don't display insulting slogans."
The deployment of the defense system, which China fears could undermine its own nuclear deterrent, sparked a backlash against Korean retail giant Lotte, which has been forced to shut dozens of stores in the mainland. At the same time, a survey indicated China has overtaken wartime colonizer Japan in a list of South Koreans' most disliked countries.
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.
Chinese teams have only won once in 31 attempts against South Korea. They lost 3-2 in Seoul in September.
Helong Stadium, the venue for the match, has stepped up security. A three- meter 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.
The Korea Football Association said Chinese police would escort South Korean spectators, who had agreed to travel together and only wear their official "supporters' uniform" inside the stadium.