Zibo: Images of a beaming FIFA President Sepp Blatter and a small blue certificate in the Chinese city of Zibo proclaim it as the birthplace of football.

A map in Zibo's Qi State History Museum shows a thin line stretching from China to Egypt, then to Greece, Rome and France, before finishing in England, commonly known as the home of football after the rules were codified there in the 19th century.

The track represents the path of football's development, according to the museum, with the certificate — signed by Blatter — honouring China as "the cradle of the earliest forms of football".

But international experts are sceptical of such claims, pointing to a "tenuous" link between the ancient Chinese game of cuju and the modern sport, and questioning FIFA's motives.

Despite its long supposed footballing history China's national team failed to qualify for the World Cup in Brazil.

China has only appeared at one final tournament, in 2002, when they lost all three of their group matches and went out without even scoring a goal.

But millions of fans will be watching the tournament and in Zibo — the modern city on the site of the ancient Qi state's capital Linzi — football is booming.

Different types of cuju existed in ancient China, but the competitive game still played today involves keeping a leather ball stuffed with feathers off the ground without using arms or hands, before heading or kicking it though a hole above head height.

But experts outside China believe there are huge differences between cuju and modern football.

"I find it absurd to suggest ancient Chinese had comparable mentalities as football enthusiasts today," Ellis Cashmore, professor of culture, media and sport at Britain's Staffordshire University told AFP via email. "So the link is tenuous."

Historians point out that other ball sports existed around the same time as cuju emerged, including a Greek game known as episkyros.