SHANGHAI (AFP) - China's football chief and state media hailed Fifa's decision to expand the World Cup to 48 teams from 2026, saying it could help realise the country's "dream" of returning to the sport's grandest stage.
Chinese Football Association President Cai Zhenhua called the expansion an opportunity for China, who currently languish at 82nd in the world rankings, sandwiched between St Kitts and Nevis (population 60,000) and the Faroe Islands (population 49,000).
"The 2026 World Cup is still far off but you could say that China will have more chances after the World Cup expansion," he was quoted as saying by the Beijing Youth Daily.
Cai spoke as Team Dragon went down 0-2 at home to Iceland in the invitational China Cup tournament.
State mouthpiece Xinhua said in a commentary on Wednesday that the 48-team World Cup will complement official efforts to improve the standards of football in China.
"Even if the levels of skill and strategy in the Chinese men's football do not grow in leaps and bounds by 2026, the initial objectives of (China's) football reform will have been realised," said the commentary issued late Tuesday.
"By then, with the added bonus of World Cup expansion, it is highly possible that China's return to the World Cup will no longer be just a dream."
Fifa voted on Tuesday to expand the World Cup from 32 teams to 48, with its president Gianni Infantino saying more countries needed a chance to shine in a tournament dominated by Europe and South America, while critics derided the move as driven by profit and politics.
The decision is likely to mean Asia doubling their guaranteed World Cup finals allocation from four to eight countries, with the ninth-placed qualifier facing a play-off.
"Many more countries will have the chance to dream," Infantino said.
China has the world's biggest population and a cash-rich domestic league that has in the past month broken the Asian transfer record with Shanghai SIPG paying €60 million (S$91 million) for Oscar, while making Carlos Tevez reportedly the world's highest-salaried player at Shanghai Shenhua.
But at the national level China punches well below its weight, having qualified only once for the World Cup Finals, in 2002, where they failed to win a match or score a goal.
Xinhua said the expansion of the competition "will undoubtedly give it a more global significance", and introduce different playing styles.
Chinese Super League clubs, encouraged by football fan President Xi Jinping's vision of turning China into a one of the game's superpowers, have broken the Asian transfer record five times in less than a year.
He has set a target of hosting and winning a World Cup, prompting a flood of money into top-flight teams and heavy investment in grass-roots development.