By Sue-Lin Wong
BEIJING (Reuters) - China, backed by its richest man, has struck a deal with FIFA to host the first China Cup from next year, a competition that will pit its national side against three international "first-class" teams - and hopefully pave the way to soccer glory.
Chinese property tycoon Wang Jianlin, whose Dalian Wanda conglomerate is already a high-level FIFA sponsor, said on Wednesday that his group and the Chinese Football Association would host the contest in the southern city of Nanning: four games played over a week every January.
European clubs often have a break around that time, potentially allowing national sides to pit their best - as China hopes. Eventually, it wants a total of eight teams to play.
"We aim to become the best football competition in Asia," Wang told reporters in Beijing. "We will use all possible measures to ensure we achieve this."
China would qualify automatically for a contest that does allow them to earn points for global rankings - an opportunity for a country that wants to climb the FIFA table where it is currently languishing at 81, below Equatorial Guinea and Haiti. China is preparing to compete for a spot in the 2018 World Cup.
Soccer in China has been plagued by poor performances on the field and match-fixing scandals. But President Xi Jinping, a self-professed avid soccer fan, has spoken in the past of "three wishes" for China: to qualify for another World Cup since their first and only appearance at the 2002 finals, to host a World Cup, and to eventually win one.
China has since said it wants to turn its team into one of the world's best by 2050.
"We are duty-bound as people in the soccer industry, as members of the Chinese Football Association, to vigorously develop Chinese football," said Yu Hongchen, vice president of the Chinese Football Association.
"This is our responsibility and it is also the demand of the times."
Dalian Wanda has been at the forefront of China's push into the business of sport, building up a sports arm which already owns a 20 percent stake in Spanish soccer club Atletico Madrid.
Over the last 18 months, Wanda has sealed a series of high-profile sports investments to build up its sports business arm, from the purchase of the organizer of Ironman Triathlon races, World Triathlon Corp to the purchase of Swiss-based sports marketing firm Infront, in a $1.2 billion deal last year.
(Reporting by Sue-Lin Wong; Editing by Clara Ferreira Marques and Ryan Woo)