Chinese players chase their dreams to Portugal
Dreams of emulating Cristiano Ronaldo have prompted nearly 40 Chinese youngsters to leave home and travel halfway round the world to improve their soccer skills in Portugal.
The move is already paying off, says Portuguese coach Carlos Gomes who brought the group to Europe last year.
"If only you had seen how tactically poor they were when they arrived. It's like night and day. They have improved so much," Gomes told Reuters at a training session in Massama near Sintra.
Gomes, a former youth coach with Benfica, travelled to China just over a year ago to help local teams spot talent in an annual youth tournament that gathers China's top eight clubs.
The best players were picked by local Chinese coaches and stayed at home with the national youth team. Gomes selected the next-best group, aged 16 to 20, and brought them to Portugal, to live, study and improve their football as part of a project involving the Portuguese and Chinese soccer federations.
"We have several difficulties and the language is a hard barrier to cross but with a team of Chinese tutors helping them learn Portuguese it has become easier," said Gomes.
"(The Chinese) are looking for success with their national teams but also searching for a flagship player, someone who can become an icon for Chinese football," he added.
"Something extraordinary happened a few weeks ago. In a match played in Spain, we beat China's under-22 national squad 2-1. We totally commanded the game. That is how far these guys have come tactically and technically in just over one year."
Despite the culture shock and initial communication problems, the lively group of players say the move has been worthwhile.
"When I first got to Portugal I had a bit of trouble adapting but after a while I got used to it and now I really enjoy the place," said Zhou Dadi, who turned 17 this week.