China sets sights on World Cup

China sets sights on World Cup
Construction workers watch a live broadcast of the 2014 Brazil World Cup final match between Germany and Argentina on an electronic screen set up near their dormitory at a construction site in Tianjin, June 14, 2014.

Once regarded as unattainable dreams, hosting and eventually winning the football World Cup have become serious goals for China under a national plan unveiled on Monday to make the sport a truly mass game.

One important feature of the football reform plan, issued by the State Council, the country's cabinet, is to streamline the sport's widely criticised counterproductive management system.

The reform will delink the semi-administrative Chinese Football Association from the General Administration of Sport of China, which is now managing the association with its own officials, and make the former a full-fledged nongovernmental organisation.

The Chinese Football Association will hand its decision-making power to a reshuffled league council to be formed by shareholders from domestic league clubs and one CFA representative.

Professional leagues will raise their management standards and be open to market-economy practices.

All organisations, from schools to corporations, are encouraged to set up their own football teams and to stage amateur games at multiple levels. This should be supported, according to the State Council plan, by government-financed unions, youth organisations and women's associations.

China is the world's second-largest economy, but its football performances have been sadly lacking on the international stage.

According to Zhang Jian, secretary-general of the CFA, there were 190,000 student players registered at local sports authorities at the beginning of 2014, less than one-third of the number in 1995. The number of football schools in operation has dropped from 1,000 in the 1990s to 20.

Football in China has been plagued by poor results, match-fixing and bribery, gambling scams and bureaucratic ineptitude and corruption for so long that the State leadership has had to step in.

The football reform initiative was first announced in February at a top-level meeting chaired by President Xi Jinping, who is a football fan.

"The key obstacle to China's progress in football is its current management system," the General Administration of Sport of China said in a statement released on Monday.

Tan Jianxiang, a professor of sports sociology at South China Normal University, said on Monday, "The new measures will help club owners gain some crucial rights, while making the CFA work only as a supervisor and supporter."

Sports industry specialists said implementation of the plan will have to be matched by efforts from the government's taxation, commerce and justice departments.

But they said that as football is the most influential and most difficult sport to improve in China, reforming it will set a national example. Once it succeeds, football reform can be emulated by the managers of other sports.

Chen Jian, vice-chairman of the China Association of Economic Structural Reform and a sports industry researcher, said football can be the first sports industry for China, and can play an important economic role by boosting consumer spending.

However, Zhang Jian, CFA secretary-general, said these radical institutional measures won't happen immediately.

National team player Jiang Zhipeng said China will have to learn football management from Europe.

Initially, the most important part of the forthcoming reform is to expand the game's participation base among young people.

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