The Chinese have always had a soft spot for football. Team China did not qualify for this year's World Cup, set to take place in Qatar this November, nor has it qualified for any World Cup since its debut in 2002. However, the sport draws as much public attention in China as in football powers such as France, Italy and Brazil.
The launch of the China Youth Football League (CYFL), a new event for primary school to college players, in July, is indicative of China's eagerness both to make football a more popular form of physical exercise for young students and to cultivate future stars that will help Team China excel in the international arena.
In 2015, China adopted a landmark reform plan aiming to overhaul its football management system. The plan, which involves almost every aspect of the sport, calls for promoting its development on school campuses. Government departments, including the Ministry of Education, have since worked to spark greater interest among students and build the necessary infrastructure.
To date, more than 30,000 primary and middle schools across the country have been named specialist football schools. The schools are required to offer at least one football class each week and encourage their students to participate in training and competitions. Some 55 million youngsters play football on campuses across the nation.
The CYFL plan was jointly devised by the Ministry of Education, the General Administration of Sport of China and the Chinese Football Association. It is designed as a youth league with the widest coverage, the largest number of participants and the greatest social influence in China. Notably, teams from sports schools, regular schools and football clubs compete on a level playing field, an illustration of the idea that sports and academic education should be integrated to help students develop in well-rounded manner.
Hopes are high that the CYFL will become a window through which more young people embrace and appreciate football, as well as an incubator of outstanding players.