June 14, 2017 / 1:02 PM / 4 months ago

China's Xi meets FIFA head amid World Cup speculation

BEIJING, June 14 (Reuters) - Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged continued efforts to improve Chinese football in a meeting on Wednesday with FIFA President Gianni Infantino in Beijing, amid speculation that China may be planning a bid to host the World Cup.

“There is still a very large disparity in the general standard of China’s football today compared to major footballing nations,” Xi said in the meeting, according to state broadcaster CCTV.

Xi, an avid football fan, has launched an ambitious drive to improve Chinese football from the ground up, and has spoken of his wish for China to qualify for another World Cup, to host the tournament, and eventually to win one.

The country has invested heavily in the sport in recent years, boosting its Super League with some high-profile, big-money international signings.

Its growing influence within FIFA was reflected in the election of Zhang Jian to the governing body’s council in May, and FIFA has appointed a number of Chinese companies as sponsors for the forthcoming World Cups in Russia and Qatar.

But its national team continues to struggle: they have only once qualified for the World Cup -- in 2002, when the team lost all three matches and failed to score a goal.

Ranked 82nd by FIFA, China is all but certain to miss out on qualification for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, after a late goal cost the team victory against Syria in their most recent match on Tuesday.

While the incomplete summary released by CCTV did not contain any mention of the World Cup, speculation has grown that China wishes to launch a bid to host the competition in either 2030 or 2034.

Xi told Infantino that China was cultivating a football culture for everyone, building world-class football schools and greatly expanding youth football, CCTV reported.

“The true meaning of football is not just about competition, it is more about cultivating people’s patriotism and collective fighting spirit,” Xi said.

Infantino commended China on attaching such great importance to football and promoting the sport to its people, according to CCTV.

“China plays a critical role in FIFA’s football development strategy,” the broadcaster reported him saying. (Reporting by Christian Shepherd and Philip Wen,; Editing by Neville Dalton)

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