A game of soccer is underway beneath a hazy afternoon sun.
At first glance, it looks like any other you might encounter in Brazil, a nation celebrated for its unwavering addiction to this sport.
A group of teenage boys in brightly colored shirts battles for the ball, urged on by a coach who is barking instructions with the ferocity of a drill sergeant.
Look again, though, and you soon spot a difference: Not one of these young and skillful players is Brazilian. They are all Chinese.
China is engaged in a massive drive to try to extend its “soft power” across Latin America by investing heavily on multiple fronts, from oil and gas to seaports and hydroelectric power stations. Forging closer ties through soccer — or futebol, as Brazilians call it — is part of the mix.
These Chinese players have traveled some 11,000 miles to learn how to become top-quality professional soccer stars from a country that has won five World Cups — more than any other nation.
They are being trained at a soccer academy in southeast Brazil, a cluster of modern apricot-colored buildings surrounded by soccer pitches and set amid rolling farmland outside a town called Porto Feliz.
The academy belongs to Desportivo Brasil, a boys and girls club set up in 2005 by a Brazilian entrepreneur who wanted to nurture marketable young players from the region; it has a professional team, comprising mostly Brazilian players, that competes at state level.
Four years ago, Desportivo was purchased by Shandong Luneng, three times champion of the Chinese Super League and one of China’s most successful clubs.
Each year Shandong sends members of its youth teams to the academy for 10 months of soccer coupled with regular school lessons, including classes in Portuguese, the national language. They receive coaching from Brazilians and play against Brazilian teams, although only in unofficial “friendly” games.
It’s a “really, really good experience” for these young Chinese players, says Leonardo Galbes, the Brazilian coach of the under-16s from Shandong. Becoming a top professional in the ruthless world of soccer is a tough proposition anywhere, but Galbes believes that among the players from Shandong are “three guys with a good potential to play at a high level.”
This year’s crop includes Paierman Kuerbantayi, a 17-year-old midfielder who came to Brazil to pursue a “very difficult” personal dream: to play for China, and in the World Cup.
“This is my big dream,” he declares.
That dream fits in with the grandiose ambitions of China’s leadership, particularly President Xi Jinping, an avid soccer fan who is keenly aware of the benefits of using the sport to project soft power across the planet.
China has qualified for the World Cup finals only once, in 2002, when it failed to win a game or score a goal. It currently stands in 76th position in the rankings by FIFA, soccer’s governing body. That’s two places behind Syria, and nine behind the tiny Cape Verdes Islands. (Brazil, by contrast, is ranked third.)
In 2015, China unveiled a major package of proposals that it hopes will enable it to rise beyond this lowly status and become a global soccer superpower capable of one day winning the World Cup. The plan includes overhauling the sport in China from top to bottom, rooting out corruption in management and investing in tens of thousands of training schools.
Some big names in Brazilian soccer are helping the Chinese effort to raise their game, by moving to China — in some cases, for colossal pay — to join top clubs. The 23 Brazilian stars currently playing in the Chinese Super League include players selected multiple times by Brazil’s celebrated national team — among them, Oscar, Hulk and Paulinho. Shandong has three highly rated Brazilians in its first-team squad.
“Our goal is to make our football competitive in the world scenario,” says Qu Yuhui, political adviser at the Chinese Embassy in Brasília, Brazil’s capital. “But it’s not something you can achieve in one day or two.”
China’s interest in Brazil extends far beyond its desire to master soccer skills. Its relationship with Latin America’s largest nation has grown remarkably in recent years. China’s appetite for soybeans, oil and iron ore has helped make it Brazil’s No. 1 trading partner. Trade has spawned a surge in investment. In recent years, Chinese companies have poured money into Brazil amid — and, perhaps, because of — deep recession and a tsunami of corruption scandals in the South American country. Chinese investment in Brazil rose from an estimated $5 billion in 2009 to some $60 billion in 2016, according to research by the Atlantic Council, a think tank in Washington, D.C.
“The Chinese presence is increasingly expanding everywhere, with football, with services, with banks, with industry, high-tech sectors,” says Luiz Augusto de Castro Neves, chair of the China-Brazil Business Council, an association that promotes dialogue between companies of the two countries.
“They want to know everything. They want to acquire … the relevant technology but they have also been very respectful of our institutional framework.”
Evidence abounds of China’s expanding footprint. This year a Chinese company bought a controlling stake in Brazil’s second-largest container port, a terminal in the southern city of Paranaguá that ships goods across the Atlantic. A trendy new car, the Tiggo 2, built by Chinese automaker Chery and Brazil’s Caoa Group, recently began plying the roads of Brazil. A popular Brazilian ride-hailing service called 99, set up to compete with Uber, passed into Chinese ownership.
Qu, the Chinese diplomat, describes the Brazil-China relationship as “business, business, business,” adding that it is market-oriented, “decided by supply and demand on both sides.”
Until recently, China’s advance into Brazil seems to have been largely ignored by the Brazilian public. Unlike the United States, China has not so far left much of an imprint on Brazilian popular culture: Brazilians struggle to name a Chinese dish, let alone a musician.
Yet China’s role has emerged as an issue in the lead-up to this weekend’s presidential election. The far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro, a retired army captain who leads the polls, has made numerous speeches advocating strong commercial relations with China, yet fulminating about China being allowed to “buy Brazil.”
Soccer, though, is different. Brazilians are intensely proud of the wizardry they bring to the game; there is little evidence they resent sharing their genius with others.
Sending young players from China to learn from Brazilians is the “correct thing to do,” says Leonardo Meireles, sports editor of Correio Braziliense newspaper, because, he says, “we’re the best!”
“We play with joy, you know. Football is in our soul,” he explains.
Even so, Meireles is far from confident that China’s investment will pay dividends anytime soon.
Asked how long it will be before soccer fans can hope to see a Chinese team lift the World Cup, he pauses before replying bluntly: “50 years.”
NPR news assistant Valdemar Geo contributed reporting to this story.