BEIJING (AFP) - China has taken steps to improve its football performance, state media reported on Sunday, after a key group with presidential backing agreed a plan to raise the level of the game.
The country's central reform leading group, chaired by President Xi Jinping, approved the plan on Friday, the official Xinhua news agency said.
"We must develop and revitalise soccer to ensure we are a strong nation of sports," Xinhua cited a statement issued after a meeting of the group as saying.
"It is the desperate desire of the people as well." 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 82nd place, tied with Guatemala, in Fifa's latest global rankings.
Still, that is markedly better than November when it stood in 99th place.
The country's stock rose after coach Alain Perrin surprisingly took the side to the Asian Cup quarter-finals in Australia in January.
Team China romped through the group stage but were ultimately laid low in a 2-0 loss to the host Socceroos, the eventual winner of the tournament.
But in the past far smaller neighbours Japan and South Korea have outshone China in the sport, with the South Koreans reaching the World Cup semi-finals in 2002. China lost all three group matches that year, their only appearance at the finals.
Japan and South Korea jointly hosted the 2002 World Cup and thus gained automatic qualification, leaving the way open for China to make it in from the Asian region.
Xinhua stressed that Xi is "an avid soccer fan" who was "apparently unpleased with the national team's play".
It noted that in 2011, when still vice president, he had listed as his personal ambitions for China that year to qualify for the World Cup as well as eventually hosting and winning it.
The reform group statement stressed the need to develop youth talent.
"More efforts should be made at the grassroots level to nurture young talents and to ensure the integration of professional clubs, school teams and amateur teams," it said.
China must overcome its "defective system" and provide better "institutional guarantees" for the sport's development, the group added.