Xi Jinping captains top officials in planning how to give Chinese soccer a boost
Leaders elevate revival of the beautiful game to national importance
China's top leaders met on Friday to discuss and approve a plan to revive the country's ailing soccer fortunes.
In a meeting chaired by President Xi Jinping and attended by Premier Li Keqiang and two other Politburo Standing Committee members, the leaders linked a turnaround in the game to the realisation of the "China dream", or the rejuvenation of Chinese civilisation.
No other major countries so far have elevated the beautiful game to such a national level.
A document released by Xinhua after the meeting said "developing and reviving soccer is the desire of the people of the whole country".
Major changes would be introduced to the game in China and any obstructions would be "swept away", it said.
The document said China must build a strong "mass foundation" to develop soccer, meaning that more children would be encouraged to learn the game. By 2017, more than 20,000 schools across the country would have soccer training in their curriculum, Xinhua reported.
Xi, just like former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping , is known as a keen fan of the sport.
But the abysmal performance of the national team has become an embarrassment and a source of public resentment.
China has played just once in the World Cup finals - in 2002, when its nemeses South Korea and Japan automatically qualified as the hosts.
In recent years, the national team has recorded some humiliating failures, including its 5-1 loss to Thailand in 2013.
Kwok Ka-ming, former Hong Kong soccer team head coach and former technical director of the Chinese Football Association, welcomed the decision and said Chinese soccer needed such a top-down approach.
"It stands a greater chance of success when it comes directly from President Xi and the State Council," he said. "China in the past relied too heavily on elite soccer development. It's not working. Now they are trying to follow in the footsteps of Japan and South Korea by making this a mass sport, expanding it to the school level and instilling a soccer culture in the community."
Kwok said a main challenge was the lack of good technical experts to help young players grow.
He said that when he headed the CFA's technical department from 2011 to 2014, the association produced 2,400 qualified coaches a year. Japan has 60,000 registered soccer coaches.