China targets World Cup last 16

BEIJING: China has set its men's national football team the target of reaching the World Cup last 16 and becoming a global force in the game.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is an avid football fan and the country is training an army of young players it hopes will help the nation rise from 84th in the world rankings, just above Qatar and below teams including Jordan and Gabon.

Iran are Asia's highest-ranked team at number 45. South Korea and Japan are 51st and 53rd respectively.

"We will strive to build our national team into a strong and competitive team on the world stage and get ready a bid for the World Cup," Cai Zhenhua, president of the Chinese Football Association, was quoted as saying by Xinhua on Friday.

"It will take us 10 to 20 years or even longer to achieve (top 16).

"As everybody knows, we still have a long way to go. But we hope through steadfast efforts we can make it to the top 16 at the World Cup some time in the future."

A consortium led by state-backed China Media Capital took a $400 million (£268.5 million) stake this month in the ownership of English Premier League club Manchester City -- Beijing's biggest investment in the sport overseas.

Guangzhou Evergrande, coached by World Cup-winning coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, are Asia's club champions but China's national team has a long way to go to achieve glory at the global showpiece tournament.

The only time China qualified for the World Cup finals was in 2002, when the tournament was jointly hosted by South Korea and Japan. The Chinese were knocked out in the group stage without scoring a goal and conceding nine.

Their hopes of reaching the 2018 finals were dealt a blow after a goalless draw with Hong Kong in a qualifier last month.

Corruption remains a serious problem in Chinese football. A crackdown to clean up the game has resulted in at least nine officials, four judges, 13 players or coaches and 17 club workers being jailed or punished since 2009.

Football is extremely popular in China. Premier League and other major European clubs regularly visit China on off-season tours, attracting huge crowds.