President Xi Jinping has vowed to make China a footballing force and is prepared to go to great lengths to do it, sending thousands of toddlers to “football-focused” kindergartens.
China, which has a population of 1.4 billion but has continually underachieved in football, will start trialling the kindergartens this year, state media said on Monday.
Citing the Ministry of Education, Xinhua news agency said that “each provincial-level region” will have 50 to 200 football-centric kindergartens.
“The pilot programme aims to cultivate interest in football in children through popular football games and create an atmosphere favourable for football culture to grow,” Xinhua said, citing a ministry directive.
“Various physical activities tailored for kids will be held, during which children are encouraged to run, jump, climb, throw and shoot balls.”
Li Jianli, director of a kindergarten in the Chinese capital, told the Global Times: “We have football coaches for kids who are over five and many other kindergartens in Beijing run football programmes too.”
In October, the Chinese Football Association announced plans for 10,000 kindergartens across the country.
World Cup ambitions
In 2016, China unveiled its plan to become a “football powerhouse” by 2050, with 50 million players and 50,000 coaching schools within the next 10 years.
Himself a football fan, President Xi has expressed ambitions for China to qualify for, host and win the World Cup.
So far China have qualified for the World Cup only once, in 2002, when they failed to win a point or score a goal.
They languish at 72nd in the FIFA rankings, between Macedonia and El Salvador, and have lost their last three matches on the spin.
The sport is extremely popular in the country, with tens of thousands of Chinese fans attending the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
The government is throwing resources at grassroots football, but the AFP news agency recently revealed how the game was awash at lower levels with unqualified coaches.
China’s pilot programme follows the success of Qatar’s Aspire Academy, which scouts football talent across the country’s schools before they are admitted as high school-aged student-athletes.
Thirteen of the 23-man Qatari squad which lifted the Asian Cup in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) earlier this year were graduates of the programme.
Qatar is set to host the Arab world’s first football World Cup in 2022.