By Michael Church
HONG KONG (Reuters) - Youth development specialist Tom Byer wants Chinese President Xi Jinping to focus the nation's energy on winning the Under 17 World Cup as a first step to achieving China's long-term football goals.
Xi sparked the current frenzy within China's football scene when he said it was his dream for China to qualify for, host and win the World Cup.
Since then the country's business elite have thrown huge sums of money at the sport, with Chinese Super League clubs spending hundreds of millions of dollars to lure top class foreign talent to the country while others have purchased shares in foreign teams.
Byer, though, believes the Chinese need to adopt a different approach and focus on goals that are more achievable.
"I wish Xi Jinping would come out in the media again and say something different," said the American coach.
"Not that his dream is to win a World Cup -- although of course he can say that -- but that his other dream is that China wins an Under 17 FIFA World Cup and then people will start investing in the kids.
"Then you could set a goal for 10 years that you want them to do well in an under 17 World Cup."
China has not appeared at the FIFA Under 17 World Cup since 2005, a year after winning the Asian Under 16 Championship for only the second time.
Byer points to Japan's success in reaching the Under 20 World Cup final in Nigeria in 1999, when a team featuring several of the squad that would go on to play at the senior World Cup in 2002 and 2006 lost out to a Spain side featuring future Barcelona icon Xavi Hernandez.
"Look at Japan, they played in the final of the Under 20 World Cup against Spain and it helped them a lot," said Byer. "I would rather see China focus on the Under 17s because it's a 'no brainer'.
"Competition-wise it's not unrealistic and people could get behind that, and secondly it's every two years, so there's a two-year cycle that you can get behind. The billionaires would be tripping over themselves to invest."
'200 MILLION EYEBALLS'
Byer has been brought on board by China's education ministry to help implement the country's plans to bring football into the national curriculum.
The latest phase of his work will kick off next month when videos featuring the New York-born coach will begin to bebroadcast daily on the China Education Television network.
He has enlisted the help of former Manchester United and England star David Beckham to promote the television spots, which will be shown on a network that has the potential to reach tens of millions of students.
"Because football has become compulsory in schools, you have six-year-olds starting to play football, but you also have 15 and 16-year-olds starting to play, so I told the ministry of education that the technical age of those players is the same," said Byer.
"The whole idea is based on what I did in Japan. You need a media component that can speak to millions of kids. It's got potentially 200 million eyeballs on it and they're talking about piping it into the classrooms."
Byer has worked on similar programmes in Japan -- where he has been based for close to three decades -- but he stresses it is difficult to compare the two countries.
"Japan is so different, the cultures are so different," he said. "Sport is seen as part of education, not as a distraction as it is in China.
"What we are doing today, you're not going to see a major difference for 10 or 15 years. But it also depends on deciding what is success.
"For me, I try to manage expectations and tell people you can't measure it by how many World Cup tournaments China might or might not perform in, but you can determine it by how they are performing at the Asian Under 16 tournament."
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)