WORLD CUP COLUMN: Ex-Pompey duo aiming to raise standards in a cricket-mad country

David James is currently managing Kerala in the Indian Super League
David James is currently managing Kerala in the Indian Super League
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Here’s a fact - if the World Cup final was contested by the two most populated nations at Russia 2018 then Brazil would play Nigeria.

Of the eight countries with the highest populations on the planet, they are the only two competing in the 21st World Cup. Brazil’s population is roughly 210 million, while Nigeria’s is around 195 million.

The two most populous nations on earth - China and India, with over a billion people living in each of those countries - only have one World Cup finals appearance between them.

China qualified for the 2002 finals, but lost all three of their group games without scoring a single goal.

As for India, they have never competed in a World Cup finals. They DID qualify for the 1950 tournament, but only because all the other Asian nations - the Phillipines, Indonesia and Burma - refused to take part in a qualifying event. India themselves then withdrew from the finals, which took place in Brazil, citing a variety of reasons and excuses including the fact it was too far to travel.

Contrary to footie folklore, one of the reasons was NOT due to the fact FIFA told them they could not play their games barefoot (India had taken part in the 1948 Olympic football event playing barefoot).

As anyone with a passing knowledge of sport knows, India’s national sport is cricket. Football trails a long way behind. As a result, not many of the country’s residents would have been too worried about the fact India finished rock bottom of their World Cup qualifying group. They lost seven of their eight matches and among the nations to finish above them were Oman (population around 4.5 million) and Turkmenistan (population around 5.5 million). Even Guam, the largest island in Micronesia, finished above a nation boasting over a billion people - even though its own population is around 170,000.

Interestingly, both China and India have taken strides in recent years to raise interest in football through the creation of a Super League.

China’s league has been going the longest. Formed in 2004, it has attracted widespread attention in England through the fact several well known Premier League players have been tempted to the Far East by the lure of huge salaries.

Chelsea sold Oscar to Shanghai SIPG two years ago for a fee of €60 million, and it is reported that the Brazilian is paid around £400,000 a week. Team-mate Hulk is reportedly paid £320,000 every seven days. Last year, another Shanghai team - Shenhua - signed former Manchester United and Manchester City striker Carlos Tevez on a salary widely reported to be over £600,000 a week. That is not a mistake. Over six hundred thousand pounds a week, if you want me to write it another way.

Over on the sub-continent, the Indian Super League started in 2013. It only has ten teams and there is no promotion or relegation. Of interest to Pompey supporters is the fact two former Fratton Park employees are among the current managers - ex-Blues boss John Gregory (at Chennaiyin) and FA Cup winning goalkeeper David James (FC Kerala). Gregory oversaw his club’s coronation as 2017/18 Super League champions earlier this year.

Both countries are working on the premise that a Super League featuring a selection of foreign imports will improve ‘home-grown’ players sufficiently for them to qualify for future World Cup finals.

There appears enough interest to make that a possibility - the average attendance for a Chinese Super League game in 2017 was 23,766 - higher than that season’s Italian Serie A average and also higher than the French La Ligue one. Meanwhile, over 25,000 watched Chennaiyin win the Indian title back in March. That is a small number compared to the attendances that flock to watch Indian Premier League t20 cricket, but it’s a start.

As China and India obviously demonstrate, a country’s population bears little resemblance to their international success.

After all, the USA, Pakistan, Indonesia and Bangladesh make up the top eight most populated nations on the planet. And, of those, only the States have ever qualified for a World Cup finals. Don’t expect that stat to change any time soon.

Despite a population of over 300 million, the USA will be watching Russia 2018 on television. They might tune in to watch Iceland, the smallest nation population-wise ever to compete at the World Cup. There are only around 340,000 Icelanders, but famously that didn’t stop them knocking England out of the last European Championships, though.

If you stop to think about it, the size of some countries who do compete in qualifiers is incredible.

Gibraltar have twice attempted to qualify for a major competition since being granted affiliation by UEFA and FIFA. They lost all ten of their Euro 2016 qualifiers and had a similar record of failure in their 2018 World Cup qualifying group. But Gibraltar’s population is only around 34,000. They played World Cup holders Germany in a Euro 2016 qualifier, in Germany, and only lost 4-0. That’s remarkable, it really is.

San Marino’s population is only around 80,000, as is San Marino’s. The fact these tiny nations - all with a much smaller population than Portsmouth - can compete with the European giants and not lose too heavily every single time speaks volumes.

Imagine Gibraltar taking on India? Could a nation with 34,000 people beat one with a population of over a billion at a sporting event?

As this is football we are talking about, I wouldn’t be surprised if they did ...