The Ministry of Education (MOE) on February 21 announced a plan to raise the number of "schools characterized by soccer" to 20,000 by the end of this year and eventually to 50,000 by 2025, and to establish about 200 college soccer teams in the future.
"Campus soccer will be the foundation of the pyramid of Chinese football," Gao Jia, former captain of China's national beach soccer team and lecturer on campus grassroots soccer, told the Global Times on Monday.
However, Ma Dexing, deputy editor of the Changsha-based Titan Sports magazine, warned that "campus soccer to popularize the sport and fostering talents are different. There is still a long way to go."
As the Chinese national soccer team has qualified for the World Cup finals only once - in 2002 - and has almost certainly missed out on the 2018 edition, China is turning to grassroots soccer in a bid to up its game. As part of that effort, the country is encouraging elementary and high schools to add the game to their curricula, the Xinhua News Agency reported on February 21.
Wang Dengfeng, a leading official with the MOE's campus soccer work group and the ministry's physical education director, said 16,000 school principals, PE teachers, campus coaches and referees have received training and 115 foreign soccer coaches were hired by schools in 2016.
Meanwhile, Beijing's Haidian district, known for its cluster of top universities and schools, was designated an "experimental zone" for youth soccer on February 21, said Xinhua.
China launched its soccer reform program in 2015 and unveiled an ambitious blueprint in April 2016 to get 50 million children and adults playing soccer by the end of this decade, with the ultimate goal of becoming a "world soccer power" by 2050.
"In our school, students from grade one to three have two or three hours of soccer classes a week, Wu Zhen, a PE teacher from Ji'nan Liyuan School, East China's Shandong Province, told the Global Times on Monday.
Wu added that they have put some of their more talented pupils into school teams to train them each afternoon for one and half hours.
Liyuan School was included in the first list of "schools characterized by soccer" in 2015 thanks to its "great fields, qualified soccer teachers and motivation in promoting soccer," according to Wu.
As a consequence, the school received supportive funds and facilities from the local education department.
"Soccer is an all-around sport. Therefore, besides the competitive parts of soccer, we have also designed some games and exercises related to soccer to spark children's interest," Wu said.
"We have not only soccer practice, but also soccer cultural activities for students. For instance, we plan to organize a trip for students to the Football Museum in Zibo, Shandong, where soccer originates," said Gao, who is also a PE teacher at Beijing No.55 High School.
An early Chinese version of soccer, called cuju, is thought to have been invented in the city.
"At many schools in a crowded city like Beijing, space for a standard field cannot be found," Gao said.
"Some soccer talents meet limitations in entering higher schools, which lowers the motivation of students and parents to participate in soccer," Wang said, adding that many local governments have not allocated special funds to support campus soccer.
"Moreover, in China we lack professional soccer coaches who used to be soccer insiders themselves, such as retired preofessional players, which are very common in other countries," Ma said.
"However, the real bottleneck of promoting soccer in campus is cultural, because in general Chinese people still believe students' entire job is to study," Wang noted.
But things are changing gradually.
Gao participated in a overseas training project for campus soccer coaches arranged by the MOE. The project sent 420 coaches to the UK and France for three months of training, and will send around 400 in 2017, according to Xinhua.
According to Ma, the main goal of the campus soccer project is to benefit the physical and mental health of students. On this basis, China can find and foster talents.
"Cultivating a professional soccer talent needs 10,000 hours of training, which is a widely recognized theory. But in China, a student can hardly get the three hours of daily soccer training needed to reach the 10,000-hour threshold," Ma noted.
"Currently the project has developed well. Playing soccer is a skill, so we should be patient and stick to the project instead of wishing to attack the mission in a short time," Ma noted.