BEIJING (AFP, China Daily/Asia News Network) - China is mandating football courses at more schools to lift its dismal global standing in a lucrative sport with billions of impassioned fans, many of them in China.
A meeting of China's State Council, or cabinet, transferred responsibility for promoting youth football from the Chinese Football Association - which has been embroiled in multiple corruption scandals - to the education ministry, the China Daily said on Friday.
"Soccer never used to be prominently promoted in Chinese schools due to the academic focus," Wu Wenqiang, of Beijing Sport University's physical education school, told the paper.
But that will soon change. China’s education minister Yuan Guiren told a national conference on promoting football in schools that the sport would become a compulsory part of physical education classes and students would be evaluated on their football skills, among other factors in students' "comprehensive quality assessment", Xinhua reported on Thursday.
Yuan was also cited as saying his ministry would inspect schools’ efforts on promoting football. It would also help set up more football academies. The goal, said Yuan, was to have about 20,000 primary and middle schools that focus on the promotion of football by 2017.
Far smaller neighbours Japan and South Korea have excelled at football, with the South Koreans reaching the World Cup semi-finals in 2002, when China lost all three of their group matches in their only appearance at the finals.
The world's most populous country has long been a powerhouse in sports such as gymnastics, diving, table tennis and badminton.
But despite a domestic football league that offers foreign managers and players lucrative contracts, the national side remains a lowly 99th place in Fifa's global rankings, below Latvia and Qatar.
Japan and South Korea jointly hosted the World Cup that year and thus gained automatic qualification, leaving the way open for China to make it in from the Asian region.
Vice Premier Liu Yandong told the State Council meeting that developing football is the basis for China to achieve its goal of standing with elite countries at important sporting events, China Daily reported.
"Chinese soccer would have already reached a global level if the game had been promoted earlier in schools," it quoted Liu Hechun, a physical education teacher at a primary school in the northeastern city of Dalian renowned for producing footballing talent, as saying.