China relies on its boys from Brazil

`The aim is to train the team in a Brazilian way, to forge a Brazilian outlook'; `They pay lots of attention to their footwork, while they ignore how to use their brain'
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The Independent Online
Teresa Poole reports from Peking on a plan to improve China's standing in world football which has resulted in a group of teenagers being coached in South America

The Chinese chef was borrowed by the local consulate, the schoolteacher returned home because she missed her husband, the interpreter left for a better job, and the team doctor got sick.

Such have been the unforeseen difficulties that have beset one of the world's more unusual training programmes - Peking's ambitious scheme to train a squad of 22 teenage footballers in Brazil for five years, in the hope of producing a superteam that will propel China on to the world football stage.

In November 1993, when the team manager, Jin Zhengmin, shepherded his troupe of 14 to 16 year olds and their entourage on to the aeroplane, no one was quite sure if the experiment would work. "The aim is to train the team in a Brazilian way, to forge a Brazilian outlook," Jin says. "No one has tried this before."

For many years, China had been attempting to improve its football standards by hiring foreign coaches to help train the adult national teams. "The overall level of football in China is very low. So it was thought a better way would be to send some teenagers abroad for proper training," Jin said.

Promising young players were selected by the Football Association of China from the best youth teams across the country. Originally, one group was planned for Brazil and one for Europe, but a shortage of funds meant the cancellation of the European trip.

A Chinese soft drinks company, Jianlibao, came up with the money for the Brazil venture; the budget was set at precisely $1,633,888 (£1.03m) - a fortuitious number because spoken in Chinese it means: "All the way there will be rising wealth".

Jin, 54, a former professional who played for China from 1958 to 1968, spent 13 mon-ths in Brazil settling in the players. Now back at the FAC in Peking (but still sporting a Brazilian baseball cap), he says: "When I first got to Brazil, some of the Brazilian coaches I tried to recruit told me that the boys' brains were still back in China. They meant that their football ideas were not that good."

The biggest problem among China's professional footballers, explains Jin, "is that they pay lots of attention to their footwork, while they ignore how to use their brain."

Ecio Pasca, 44, a former Brazilian professional player turned coach, who in the mid-Eighties spent a year coaching the Brazilian National Juvenile Team, was selected by Jin to instruct China's hopefuls in Brazilian flair. At the Chinese training base 70km outside So Paolo, there was an immediate clash of football ideology.

"Chinese coaches pay most attention to teaching by demonstration. Brazilian coaches pay more attention to the players' creativity; they try to encourage players to think of things by themselves. The different teaching styles reflect different cultures.

"In China, parents tend to impose their ideas on children, so the Chinese players at their best are only as good as their coaches. Whereas in Brazil, players develop their creativity," Jin says.

It has taken some time for the boys to adjust. "The young Chinese players are not quite used to this Brazilian style. They don't think that the Brazilian coach has taught them enough. They even suspect that the Brazilian coach is not that good," Jin says. It has been an uphill struggle. After nearly a year of Pasca's coaching, "they have just begun to get some understanding of what the coach is up to," Jin adds.

The Brazilian project has faced other unexpected problems, both practical and financial. The project is a three-way venture between the FAC, Jianlibao as financers, and Dadong Company, a Chinese business operation in Brazil which has been in charge of the logistics at the So Paolo end.

The training camp is an isolated rural property purchased by Dadong three kilometres from Juquitiba, a town of 20,000 people which is an hour's drive from So Paulo. The original intention had been to rent accommodation and training facilities, and Dadong's unexpected decision to buy land drained the project of cash at an early stage.

About $650,000 of the total budget has already been spent. "The living and training facilities are not so good at present," Jin said. The boys' accommodation buildings leak, and the planned training ground has still not been completed because of the shortage of money. The team instead uses a nearby pitch provided by the Juquitiba government.

The 22 boys train every day except Sunday, and over the past year have played nearly 100 matches against Brazilian and visiting teams. During March they toured Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay. But it is a secluded life in Juquitiba for the teenagers, who have picked up only rudimentary Portuguese.

"They don't have much fun there. The after-training life is quite monotonous," Jin said. In the evenings, the boys watch Chinese videos rented from expatriate Chinese living in the town, and play billiards and computer games. So how is morale? "Basically their spirits are good, although occasionally they miss home. But most of the young players left home quite young [to attend China's specialist sports schools] and they see it as a good opportunity."

The ancillary staff have also caused problems. The newly married schoolteacher returned early to China because she missed her husband, found life in Juquitiba boring, and did not like the local food; since then the boys have had no tuition.

The interpreter departed when a better job came up, leaving the two Chinese coaches in the squad with just about enough Portuguese to interpret for Pasca. The Chinese chef was appropriated by the Chinese consulate in So Paulo for three months to cater for visiting dignitaries. And the Chinese doctor has liver problems and is waiting to be replaced.

The plan now is for the whole squad to return to China in July or August for what Jin calls a period of readjustment. The boys will have a chance to see their family and friends, and the FAC will assess which team members should return to Brazil in the autumn, possibly adding some replacements. The squad will remain in Brazil until the end of 1998.

"Not necessarily all of them will be good players, but certainly a few of them should be outstanding. Then, with other good Chinese players, we will form a team and send it to Europe for two years," Jin said.

After mastering South American football techniques, this part of the programme is supposed to familiarise the team with the more "robust" aspects of European football, Jin says. The idea is to combine the best of South American and European styles. China's superteam will then be laun-ched at the 2000 Olympics and the 2002 World Cup.

Drug abuse notwithstanding, China's emergence as a global force in swimming and athletics has been sudden. Will its prowess on the football pitch be as swiftly gained? Jin is cautious: "Football is different from swimming and running, which demand much higher body requirements. Football requires lots of brainwork and also teamwork. Chinese football has a very weak base, so it is difficult to tell when Chinese football can make some big achievements."