Searching for some samba magic
Shandong's young talent learning to play Brazilian way
PORTO FELIZ, Brazil - Arriving in Brazil, Chinese soccer player Long Yushuo took on the more easily pronounced name Thomas, but it's the locals' skills with the ball that he's really hoping to adopt.
Thomas, 16, is one of a squad of youth players from Chinese Super League club Shandong Luneng dispatched to polish their game at Desportivo Brasil club in Porto Feliz, near Sao Paulo, which Shandong bought in 2014.
The idea is that the initiative will enable these youngsters to bring back something that all the money and desire in China cannot otherwise get - Brazil's famous "samba soccer" magic, the hallmark of its numerous superstars through the decades, including Pele, Ronaldo and Neymar.
When Thomas and 22 other under-16 players arrived from Jinan, the capital of Shandong province, in April, they knew little of Brazil.
Along with soccer practice, they study Portuguese in the quiet town of 50,000 people. But Thomas, who picked his name in honor of Germany and Bayern Munich forward Thomas Mueller, is clear about what his principal lesson has been in Porto Feliz.
"Technique," he said, alongside his teammates, who all wore Shandong's orange strip.
China may not have much soccer pedigree yet, but, encouraged by President Xi Jinping's national plan to develop the game, the country is working hard to catch up quickly.
Luneng, one of China's biggest electricity companies, is one of the major investors in the expansion plan, which has made China the world's fifth biggest transfer market in 2016. Of all the foreign imports to the CSL, the 21 Brazilian players comprise the biggest contingent.
The national team, though, has yet to turn its fortunes around. China is ranked 60th in the FIFA rankings, and despite some improvements in performances toward the ends of its qualification campaign, failed to reach next year's World Cup finals.
So China's strategists have decided to try to unpick the secrets of Brazilian soccer so that the next generation can get the missing edge.
"This exchange was created so that they can achieve a similar quality to that of the players here," Desportivo Brasil technical coordinator Rodrigo Pignataro told AFP.
"They are very disciplined, but they lack nous, cheekiness and flexibility and autonomy. That's what the Brazilian boys have."
Desportivo Brasil is not an ordinary club, but more like a training academy, so the Chinese are in good hands.
The club hosts another five Chinese players from the under-20 team as well as 130 Brazilian players ranging in age from 14 to the club's own third regional division professional team.
For the youngsters in Porto Feliz, where Brazilian and Chinese flags fly side by side, the future should be bright.
"This is the group the Chinese government wants to serve as the core of a team for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and the World Cup in 2022. We have a heavy responsibility," Pignataro said.
After swotting over history books and other academic classes in the mornings, the main focus is getting out onto the training field.
Vitinho, a skilful forward, has done three seasons in Porto Feliz and is now part of the under-20 team. Given how integrated the 18-year-old is - even becoming a fan of Brazilian funk music - few remember that his real name is Liu Chaoyang.
"I want to play in Europe, but I need to work a lot to improve," he said in fluent Portuguese.
The same might be said for the whole Chinese experiment, but Zhao Shuo, a 25-year-old assistant coach, says he's ready to take the time.
He's spent two months following his Brazilian counterparts around and says the only area where he might have the advantage is in the iron discipline associated with Asian teams.
"Soccer needs time because it's a kind of education and education is not a short-term thing. Maybe we will need 10 or 20 years or more," he said in English, pointing to Japan as an example.
"We have to learn from our neighbors and be patient," he said, never taking his eyes off the action on the field.
Agence France - presse
A young Chinese player controls the ball on his chest during a training session at the Luneng Brazil Sports Center in Porto Feliz, some 120 km from Sao Paulo, last month. Chinese Super League club Shandong Luneng has sent a squad of 23 teenage players to the small town to be coached the Brazilian way. It is hoped the youngsters will eventually form the core of a national team for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and the 2022 World Cup.Nelson Almeida / AFP
(China Daily 12/21/2017 page24)