MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now to our series on China's growing influence in the world. That influence is felt particularly strongly in Latin America, where Chinese investments are growing rapidly. It's often said that Brazil provides the food on China's dinner tables, from soybeans to beef and chicken. Those exports helped make China Brazil's biggest trading partner. As NPR's Philip Reeves reports, Brazil also has something else the Chinese want.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Foreign language spoken).
PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: You see this everywhere here.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Foreign language spoken).
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Foreign language spoken).
REEVES: Young men are playing soccer under a warm afternoon sun. Look again, though, and you'll notice there's something different about this game. We're in Brazil, yet all the players are Chinese.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Foreign language spoken).
REEVES: They're teenagers who've come here - 11,000 miles from home - to pursue a dream.
PAIERMAN KUERBANTAYI: My dream is difficult. I want to go to my country team in China, play World Cup. This is my big dream.
REEVES: Paierman Kuerbantayi is 17. He's here to learn how to make it to the top in professional soccer - or football, as everyone here calls it. He's glad he came.
KUERBANTAYI: I think I like the Brazil football. I want to play in here because step-by-step here for me is good. I want to make a professional player, so everything's important.
REEVES: We're at a soccer training academy near a town called Porto Feliz in southeast Brazil. It's part of a minor league Brazilian club called Desportivo Brasil. A few years ago, Desportivo was bought by one of China's most successful clubs, Shandong Luneng. Shandong sends teenage recruits here to learn from Brazil, a soccer-mad nation that's won more World Cups than any other.
LEONARDO GALBES: It's a good - really, really good experience, difficult experience because the language is totally different. The culture is totally different.
REEVES: Leonardo Galbes is coach of the under-16 team who've come from China. Becoming a top-class professional soccer player is hard, says Galbes, who's Brazilian. Of the 38 Chinese players here, Galbes thinks a couple might make it.
GALBES: Yes, I think that we have three guys that - of course, their way is a big way. It's a big way. But I think that we have three guys with a good potential to play in higher level.
REEVES: Back in China, Shandong already has several Brazilians in its first team. They're among 23 Brazilians playing in the China Super League for big bucks, including a couple of stars who've played in Brazil's national side. They help raise standards, yet Leonardo Meireles, sports editor of Correio Braziliense, thinks long-term youth training is the key to success.
LEONARDO MEIRELES: That's a correct way to do - to improve football. That's a correct way.
REEVES: Meireles thinks Brazil is the right place for Chinese youngsters to come to learn the game.
MEIRELES: Because we're the best (laughter). Because we're the best.
REEVES: You see, says Meireles, in Brazil, the first gift you give a child is not a fluffy toy...
MEIRELES: It's a ball. It's a ball for every boy and now a girl, too.
REEVES: According to FIFA, soccer's governing body, China is ranked No. 76 in the world, two places behind Syria. China's only ever qualified once for the World Cup. It didn't win a single game or score a goal. The Chinese are trying to turn this around. President Xi Jinping is a big fan of the sport. He's behind a grand plan to make China a soccer superpower. That includes setting up tens of thousands of soccer schools in China. Under-16 coach Leonardo Galbes, again.
GALBES: China have all things that's necessary to develop great soccer. They have people. They have space, and they have money.
REEVES: This isn't just about soccer. It's also about China trying to project soft power across the map. In Brazil, it's already doing that on multiple fronts.
LUIZ AUGUSTO DE CASTRO NEVES: The Chinese presence is increasingly expanding everywhere - with football, with services, with banks, with industry, high-tech sectors.
REEVES: That's Luiz Augusto de Castro Neves, chair of the China-Brazil Business Council. China is Brazil's No. 1 trading partner. Last year, the Brazilians earned some $48 billion from the Chinese, mostly by selling them soybeans, oil and iron ore. Trade has been growing rapidly in recent years and so has Chinese investment in Brazil.
QU YUHUI: Its business, business, business. And it's especially market-orientated, decided by the demand and supply of both sides.
REEVES: Qu Yuhui is political counselor at China's embassy in Brazil. China's putting money into a wide range of projects, he says.
QU: Like electricity, like equipment, like petroleum, the banks, also. And it's also in urban development. We have, also, some infrastructure programs. Ports - we have, already, three or four projects. And I think we are also following closely one or two railway projects here.
REEVES: As for soccer, Qu Yuhui's clear about what China wants from Brazil.
QU: So we should learn from the Brazilian soccer style in terms of ball possession, shot, one touch, two touch, et cetera. So maybe that's totally a soccer fan's personal view, not...
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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Goal.
REEVES: I can tell you like soccer from the way you're talking about it...
QU: Yeah. Yes, quite.
REEVES: China wants to win the World Cup one day, right?
QU: We want, but I know it will be very difficult.
REEVES: Back at the training academy in the Brazilian countryside, the Chinese teenage soccer players are working on a key game-winning skill...
REEVES: ...Penalty kicks. These young players spend 10 months here before heading back to Shandong. Every day, they train for a couple of hours. They also have academic lessons. Lin Ran is sure his trip to Brazil is paying dividends.
LIN RAN: I think I change a lot from my body. Every day, I go to gym to do some exercise to make my body strong.
REEVES: Lin Ran is 16 and an attacking midfielder. He knows exactly what his goal is.
RAN: I want to play World Cup and the Champions League.
REEVES: And to win the World Cup?
RAN: Yeah. Just a dream, right?
REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, Porto Feliz.
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