The Chinese have no footballing tradition - but they want a world- beating team. TheirI; answer? A five-year-plan, and a jungle camp in Brazil. Words and pictures by Keith Bernstein
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The Independent Culture
AN HOUR'S drive from the desolate southern suburbs of Sao Paulo, a small, dusty road branches off highway 116 near Juquitiba and disappears into the jungle. Half a mile further on, by which time the road is no more than a track, a clearing reveals two barrack-type buildings and a makeshift football pitch. It is an unlikely setting for one of the most ambitious sporting experiments ever conducted.

The buildings are home to 22 Chinese teenagers. They have lived here for a year, and will remain here for another four - by which time, if all goes according to plan, they will have become a world-beating football squad. This is no ordinary ambition. China has little serious footballing tradition and has only recently begun to compete in the World Cup. Few would consider the Chinese capable of mounting a serious challenge to the great footballing nations of Europe and South America, or even to the emerging nations of Africa. Yet the leaders of the People's Republic are convinced that their five-year plan will work. Countries like Italy, England and Germany, they reason, have become world champions in the past using only a small fraction of China's raw potential. From a population of 1.17 billion, surely it must be possible to find 11 young men capable of winning not just the soccer tournament at the 2000 Olympics but also - the ultimate prize - the 2002 World Cup?

The search began in 1992, when China was still hoping that the Millennium Olympics would take place in Beijing. The games were awarded to Sydney instead, but that disappointment only intensified official enthusiasm for the project. Twenty-two of the country's most promising adolescent athletes were identified, and the task of moulding them into world-beaters was assigned to Ecio Pasca, a 44-year-old Brazilian who once coached the Brazilian national youth team. This was a logical choice: Brazil has produced more great footballers - and more World Cup-winning teams - than any other nation. What was surprising was the decision to send the footballers to Brazil rather than bring the Brazilian to China.

Yet there was a rationale - a two-fold one. First, as Li Hui, a former player who acts as one of Pasca's two interpreters at the camp, explains: "In China, the team would still be isolated, having to make difficult and expensive journeys to play foreign sides." In footballing terms, a remote jungle in Brazil is less isolated than a major Chinese city, and the squad have regular matches both against local sides and against the national youth teams of various South American countries. The second point concerns isolation, too - social isolation, which is, from the viewpoint of Chinese officialdom, an advantage in itself. Home comforts can be a distraction. In the Brazilian jungle, there is nothing to divert the mind from the job in hand. The chosen 22 do almost nothing but play, practise and study football, eight hours a day, six days a week. A short trip home next month will be their only break in the entire five-year programme.

Jin Zhengmin, the Chinese youth team manager who oversees the squad, epitomises the single-minded approach: "This team is my fate, my destiny. With them, I want to change the face of world football, to make China a recognisable force."

Pasca, used to the more spontaneous approach of young Brazilian players, has found this dedication - which seems to be shared by the players - both impressive and disconcerting. "They are incredibly disciplined for young players" he says. "They never answer back to you, or try and argue with something you have said to them. For me at first it was an unusual attitude, not at all Brazilian, but I must say I have come to like it."

Discipline is reinforced by the almost brutal austerity of life in the camp. The boys - aged between 16 and 18 - are not pampered superstars- to-be; they are here to work. They wash their own clothes, clean their own boots, and sleep two or three to dormitory rooms barely big enough for one. If the cliche "no pain, no gain" has any validity, then China's dream is well on the way to realisation, for discomfort and monomania permeate all aspects of the players' lives. There is no telephone, post is slow, and the nearest town, Juquitiba, 2km away, is little more than four streets and a truck-stop for drivers heading down the highway.

In one room of the players' living quarters, there is a rickety pool table with two cues long since minus their tips, and a table football game missing most of its players. On the dining-room wall is a small blackboard with a representation of a football pitch, and some lines suggesting moves drawn in chalk. Food is on the whole limited to the most basic local diet: barbecued meat washed down with Coke and Fanta. Entertainment - apart from the pool and the table football - is restricted to an old video-recorder and a supply of super-violent videos, dubbed in Chinese.

Inevitably, the players moan. "It is not always good living together like this for so long," says Wang Wen Hua (who sleeps under a poster of Blackburn Rovers striker Alan Shearer, although he does not know who he is). "We get on well, but a lot of the time it is boring. A trip into Juquitiba is nothing special for us any more. We just drink Coke and come home again." Li Tie, the team captain, sounds equally depressed. "When I was offered the chance to come here, my parents said, 'Go! Go! Become successful, make yourself and us famous.' But it is very hard. I miss my family terribly. There was one phone here when we arrived, so we could call home sometimes, but it has been broken a long time now."

Three times a week, the squad visit Juquitiba's municipal ground to play a match among themselves. The rest of their training takes place on their own crumbling pitch. Every Brazilian village has a ground in better shape than this, with its patchy, broken surface. The jungle, just beyond the touchlines, is constantly trying to reclaim the ground. "This is very, very hard to make great skill on, isn't it?" says Jin Zhengmin, gesturing at the ground with a pained expression. "We talk a great deal about the grass pitches of Europe, but I tell them: Brazilians learn to play on this so we must. If we can master this, the grass will make it all seem easier."

A handful of local spectators usually watches the games in Juquitiba: not because the Chinese are a novelty, but because no Brazilian likes to miss a football game; and because, although these are still early days, standards of skill are becoming quite high.

According to Patricia Otavio, who runs a small bar in Juquitiba, everyone here likes the footballers. "We think that they are nice, very friendly. They are always polite, laughing a lot. They don't speak any Portuguese, but they are very popular. It is maybe the most exciting thing to happen in Juquitiba." Even so, the locals are still slightly bemused by the campo de futebol dos Chineses; to Brazilians, the idea that footballers can be made, rather than born, seems bizarre.

Some would say that the project is bizarre by any standards, but it does have precedents. The socialist Eastern bloc spent several decades attempting to manufacture Olympic medal-winning athletes, with some success. Promising physical specimens were selected at early ages and sent to special schools and full-time training centres; and every possible scientific and quasi- scientific assistance (short of eugenics) was given, including, in many cases, the copious use of chemical means to enhance performance. More recently, China has suddenly and controversially produced a series of world record-breaking female runners and swimmers.

The Juquitiba experiment is less scientifically-based but arguably more ambitious than any of these. For a national side to go from mere also- rans to world champions in such a short space of time would be unprecedented - unthinkable, almost. If the project succeeds, it will be a triumph not just for Li Tie and his fellow players, or for Ecio Pasca, but for communism and social engineering.

But it will also be a triumph for capitalism. The Chinese government is paying only part of the estimated $1.5m cost of the squad's stay in Brazil. The remainder is being met by a company called Jianlibao, a health drink manufacturer from Guang-dong province. Coca-Cola, sport's biggest sponsor, must be quaking in its (adidas) boots. 8