China may have solidified its position as a global power, but when it comes to the most popular sport in the world, the country is a weakling. To remedy the country’s abysmal performance in international soccer competitions, the government has a plan: to make soccer mandatory in schools.  

President Xi Jinping, widely reported to be a huge soccer fan, is hoping that introducing the sport in schools as part of the curriculum will help boost skills throughout the nation. According to a report by the Economist, China’s education officials announced that the sport would be included as a compulsory part of the national curriculum late last month. The government aims to have some 20,000 schools across the country equipped with new soccer fields by 2017. By making the sport mandatory in schools, China will cast a wider net for soccer talent, rather than relying modtly on sport-centric schools.

Making the sport part of the curriculum may also help end the stigma attached to extracurricular activities in China, where parents typically consider activities other than studying an unwelcome distraction. Wang Dengfeng, an education official, reportedly that the sport needs to “start with the children” if the country wants to improve on a larger scale.

Though basketball continues to be the darling among imported sports, soccer has gained a significant following in the nation, home to an estimated 600 million fans, even though the Chinese national team has never been able to impress at a high level.

China qualified for the World Cup only once, in 2002, when it was held in South Korea and Japan, and only because host countries automatically qualify for the games -- meaning China didn't have to face either of those strong regional rivals in the qualifier phase. But once China went to the World Cup, it didn’t score a single goal and went home roundly thrashed. 

Last July, a humiliating defeat delivered by Thailand’s national U21 team (players under 21 years old) to China’s national team was so embarrassing that small riots reportedly occurred. The team got a lashing by media and social media users who called it “embarrassing” and “shameful.”

As a result, Chinese soccer fans mostly follow European leagues and root for other nations when the World Cup is on. 

During this past summer’s World Cup in Brazil, China’s soccer-crazed fans watched excitedly, but with no home team to cheer on. Spain, Germany and England matches drew the biggest audiences.