Chinese President Xi Jinping, an avid football fan who is not shy from showing off his skills, has added an important chapter to his sports diplomacy.[Special coverage]
Xi paid a visit on Wednesday to the headquarters of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in the Swiss city of Lausanne and toured the Olympic Museum. It was the first official trip to the IOC by a Chinese head of state.
"It was really a historic visit, and also a very successful visit," IOC President Thomas Bach told reporters. "The presence of President Xi Jinping showed the excellent cooperation between China and the IOC."
With China's preparations for the 2022 Winter Olympics well underway, the Games were the main focus of the meeting between Xi and Bach.
"Before we had talks last evening and today, I always said we are very confident about the success of these Winter Games. Now, after his visit, I would say we are sure it will be a success," said Bach.
Sport has become a recurring theme in Xi's diplomatic efforts. In 2012, Xi, then China's vice president, kicked a Gaelic football during a visit to Croke Park Stadium in Dublin, Ireland. In the same year while visiting the United States, he watched an NBA game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Phoenix Suns and received an autographed jersey from British football star David Beckham.
His passion for sport didn't fade away after assuming presidency in 2013. In 2014, Xi attended the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. In 2015, he ended his state visit to Britain with a tour of English Premier League club Manchester City.
Observers say Xi's enthusiasm for and participation in sport tell both his own story and that of China's.
"As the top political leader of the country, Xi's interest in sport, especially popular events, really closes the emotional distance between him and the people. It perfectly shows his approachable style," said Lu Yuanzhen, a sport sociologist in China.
"Involvement in sports events helped the president foster a gracious and modest public image, which is in line with his open approach to governance," Lu added.
The influence of sports on Chinese politics is nothing new.
"One of the most classic cases is so-called 'Ping-pong Diplomacy' which facilitated the restoration of the China-U.S. relations in the 1970s," said Ruan Zongze, vice president of the China Institute of International Studies.
"In the new epoch of diversified diplomacy, sport is believed to make things easier by enhancing intimacy among countries," Ruan observed.
Xi has never tried to conceal his personal attachment to football. In 2011, he announced three personal football-related wishes: for China to qualify for another World Cup, to host the event and, finally, one day, to win it.
While China has yet to achieve these goals -- the last and only time China qualified for the World Cup finals was in 2002 -- Xi remains resolute.
In February 2015, China's central reform group, chaired by Xi, approved an ambitious plan to boost the level of football in the country. The series of measures introduced included establishing 50,000 football schools within 10 years, making the game compulsory for some elementary and middle-school students and separating the Chinese Football Association from government bureaucracy.
Bach spoke very highly of Xi's overall enthusiasm for sport.
"He has a clear vision about the important role of sport in society and a clear vision for the importance of sport in education for young people," said Bach. "This is why I told him that, in this respect, he is a true Olympic champion for the youth."