China is mandating football courses at more and more schools to raise the level of the game and bolster its ambitions as a power in global sport, state media reported Friday.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
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, the China Daily report said.
"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.