China draws up action plan to boost World Cup ambitions

·2-min read
FILE PHOTO: China Vice-President Xi Jinping holds a football during a visit to Croke Park in Dublin, Ireland

SHANGHAI (Reuters) - China will build new youth training centres and encourage "key cities" to set up two or more men and women's professional soccer clubs, it said on Friday, seeking to improve playing standards and become one of the sport's leading world powers.

President Xi Jinping, a soccer fan, has pledged to turn China into a "football power", and wants the country to first host and then win a World Cup before 2050.

China's General Administration of Sport pledged to learn from both domestic and foreign experiences to encourage participation, improve governance and build infrastructure, aiming for at least one soccer pitch per 10,000 people by 2025.

The administration said it will offer policy support to bring its leagues to "first-class" Asian standards by 2030.

It also promised to promote women's professional football and encourage a "diversified investment model" involving state and private enterprises, social organisations and individuals.

Despite the country's ambitions, the men's national team has struggled, qualifying only once for the World Cup finals in 2002 and now languishing as low as 77 in FIFA rankings, behind smaller nations like Cape Verde.

Club soccer has also struggled with loyalties eroded by ownership changes and rebranding.

"Much of China's ongoing football reform programme is well-intentioned and even perfectly sensible, on paper, from a footballing perspective," said Cameron Wilson, founding editor of the Wild East Football website, which follows Chinese soccer.

"But these reforms don't stand much chance of making any significant improvement in China's footballing fortunes because they don't address the deep and systematic issues in China which prevent football from developing in a ground-up, organic manner, like it does in successful football countries," he added.

(Reporting by David Stanway, Editing by William Maclean)

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