Football: British PM kicks off China trip with soccer diplomacy

BEIJING (REUTERS) - Ping-pong diplomacy gave way to its football equivalent on Monday when the English Premier League (EPL), part of British Prime Minister David Cameron's delegation to China, agreed to help nurture the sport in its most promising growth market.

The Chinese Super League (CSL) will give marketing advice to the EPL and its clubs in China in exchange for help fostering elite, youth and community football there, part of a deal inked on the first of the leader's three-day visit.

The EPL and British Council also announced plans to expand a coaching and referee training programme under the Chinese Ministry of Education called Premier Skills, with the aim of reaching more than 1.2 million Chinese students by 2016.

"It's great to kick off this visit to China with such a tangible example of how we are strengthening ties between our peoples and creating business opportunities for British companies along the way," Mr Cameron said in a statement.

His 100-person strong business delegation, the largest British mission of its kind, includes EPL chief Richard Scudamore.

The EPL and British Council will also launch a referee training effort with the Chinese Football Association (CFA).

Successful Olympic outings have made China a sporting powerhouse, but it has little in the way of a grassroots sports movement, with most of the country's top athletes churned out of state-sponsored training programmes.

In Fifa's "Big Count" in 2006, China had only 708,754 amateur and youth footballers from a population of 1.3 billion, compared to 738,800 from 41 million in England.

An opaque and powerful football bureaucracy, poor management, piecemeal youth training schemes and widespread underground betting rings have corroded the sport and restricted China to just one World Cup Finals appearance and no Asian Cup success.

Chinese football grabbed eyeballs when players such as Nicolas Anelka and Didier Drogba and high-profile coaches, including Italian Marcello Lippi, chose the big-spending CSL as their preferred destination to continue their careers.

However, after just a season, both Drogba and Anelka ended their Chinese sojourn, accepting that the desire to play at a higher level was more important for them.

Early this year, the CFA sanctioned 58 people, including two football chiefs, concluding a three-year long push to clean up rampant corruption in the sport.

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