Liu Chaoyang and his friends dodging flag poles in the sleepy outskirts of the small Brazilian town of Porto Feliz on this windy mid-winter afternoon are not training for the Olympics. The dozen or so Chinese boys breaking sweat in dribble drills are, in fact, not even interested in the world’s greatest sporting event, unfolding in Rio de Janeiro this summer.

Read more from This Week in Asia

About 120km from Brazil’s bustling commercial capital of Sao Paulo, the 17-year-old striker from Shandong Luneng and his friends are among 36 Chinese players – along with their six coaching staff – training at the sprawling Luneng Brazil Sports Centre. Their mission: to learn football, the way Brazilians play it. And time is of the essence. “Now I only practise with the ball, I’m not working on my physicals at all,” says Liu, who’s in Brazil for just two months.

“What most attracts us in Brazilian football is the skill, their baffling moves and, most of all, the joy,” chimes in Hu Jianbo, Shandong Luneng’s manager in Brazil. “Liu has been told to put his entire attention on ball control while in Brazil.”

That’s why, while Hu and other coaches have got tickets for some of the Olympic events, the boys are staying put to train. Much is riding on their tender teenage shoulders in China’s turbo-charged quest to become a soccer superpower.

Spanning 160,000 square metres that includes five full-size soccer fields and two smaller ones, Luneng Brazil Sports Centre is now run by Shandong Luneng, home to Brazilian players Gil, Jucilei amd Diego Tardelli, which until recently was coached by Mano Menezes, a former manager of Brazil’s national side. The academy used to be owned by local club Desportivo Brasil, which Shandong Luneng bought in 2014. The centre is a relatively inconspicuous sign of how much China is leaning on the land of jogo bonito (the beautiful game). More visibly, Chinese clubs have been snapping up Brazilian soccer stars like there’s no tomorrow as they splash out millions of dollars to stack their benches with big names from all over the world, following the government’s announcement of a plan to make China a footballing superpower by 2050.

That, along with massive Chinese investments into European clubs that attract the biggest Brazilian stars, means China’s rise as a world power has begun to be reflected in the pattern of global football migration as well. And, nowhere is it more evident than here in Brazil, the starting point of an emerging football silk route to China through Europe.

Chinese club transfers have already begun to resemble the drama of European soccer deals. On July 15, Brazilian striker Alan Kardec switched over to Chongqing Lifan. Sao Paulo, one of the foremost clubs in Brazil, was counting on Kardec for the national championship but couldn’t resist the temptation of the US$5.6 million Lifan offered for 70 per cent of Kardec’s rights.

Lifan, then at 12th place in the Chinese Super League (CSL), was clearly in even greater need of Kardec, who will now play alongside fellow Brazilian Fernandinho, who was bought in January from Portugal’s Estoril for US$670,000.

Transfer rumours swirl around the CSL as Shanghai SIPG plan to clear out expensive flop Gyan

That same day, Aloisio was transferred from Shandong Luneng to Hebei Fortune for an undisclosed amount. Specialised website transfermarkt.com puts his market price at US$2.23 million.

The Kardec and Aloisio deals came close on the heels of one for Hulk, the Brazilian star who moved to Shanghai SIPG from Russia’s Zenit St Petersburg for a record-breaking US$61 million. Before Hulk, the record in China football transfers was held by another Brazilian, Alex Teixeira.

Jiangsu Suning outbid Liverpool to secure Teixeira’s transfer from Ukraine’s Shakhtar Donetsk for US$56 million in the winter transfer season. It also scooped Ramires from Chelsea for US$33 million.

With 25 Brazilians in the 16 clubs of the CSL, China’s first division, Brazil is now the biggest source of foreign players in the top league, supplying nearly a quarter of them. That is followed by South Korea, with 11.

With the acquisition of Hulk, who now earns an estimated US$344,000 a week, two out of the world’s five highest-paid footballers are now playing in the CSL – the other being Italian Graziano Pelle, who last month left Southampton for Shandong Luneng, also for an estimated US$344,000 a week. Among the other big-ticket internationals Shandong Luneng scooped was Senegalese star Papiss Cisse, from Newcastle United.

Antero Greco, a famous Brazilian television personality and columnist, compares the Chinese shopping spree to the 1970s and 80s, when it was the Arab countries doing the shopping. “Arabia was the El Dorado for Brazilian footballers then. Now it’s China,” he said.

Arabia was the El Dorado for Brazilian footballers then. Now it’s China
Antero Greco

But unlike past decades, the recent transfers to China are unique in that the players are in their prime rather than opting for a well-paid Asian gig at the fag end of the career when there are few other takers.

That’s because Chinese clubs are suddenly dishing out a premium that even the biggest names on the European circuit are finding tough to resist.

According to transfermarkt.com, CSL clubs spent US$336.6 million in the last winter transfer season, more than any other league in the world, including England’s Premier League, and more than the combined spend of the top leagues in France, Italy, Germany and Spain. Even China League One, the country’s second division, was the fourth biggest spender on transfers among leagues worldwide this winter, spending nearly US$69 million.

Foreign imports are lighting up the CSL, so why won’t their national team managers notice?

Apart from players, European clubs themselves have been attracting substantial Chinese capital. Last year CEFC China Energy Company bought a majority stake in Slavia Prague, one of the Czech Republic’s oldest clubs. This June, Suning Group, which owns Jiangsu Suning, bought nearly 70 per cent of Italian club Inter for US$301 million. The same month Zhejiang businessman Tony Xia bought English club Aston Villa for US$87 million.

And last month Silvio Berlusconi announced he had sold AC Milan to an unnamed Chinese consortium for US$447 million.

The spending spree is in large measure a product of rising television revenue. China Sports Media has bought the CSL broadcast rights for US$1.26 billion over the next five years. That compares with less than US$7.5 million for the rights to the 2015 season.

In step with this, the CSL spent more on players in the last winter window than the past five combined.

But much of the new Chinese drive in football follows prodding from the highest level of the government: President Xi Jinping (習近平). An avowed football enthusiast, Xi last year commissioned a 50-point “Chinese football reform and development programme” to make China a “top-class soccer nation” by 2050, brushing off years of endemic corruption that has hobbled football’s rise in the country. A massive crackdown on match-fixing in 2013 netted 58 players and officials.

The Chinese sports industry will amount to nearly half a trillion US dollars by the end of 2020, according to a five-year sports development plan released last month by the State General Administration of Sports. “By 2020, China will have 20,000 soccer academies.

Chinese football teams, for both men and women, will present impressive results in the World Cup, Asian Cup and Olympics,” the plan declared.

Sensing the government’s interest in the industry, state and private companies have lost no time in joining forces. A consortium led by China Media Capital Holdings in December invested US$400 million in the Abu Dhabi-based company that owns Manchester City. The deal was announced within weeks of Xi swinging by Manchester City’s training ground on his trip to Britain.

Watch: Inside China’s football player factory

The new Fifa president recently announced that conglomerate Wanda Group, owned by Wang Jianlin, had become a Tier 1 sponsor for the next four World Cup tournaments. Wang, China’s richest man, bought a 20 per cent stake in Atletico Madrid in January for US$50 million. Last month he launched the annual China Cup, in which the national side will play three top nations from Europe and the Americas.

Jack Ma, who owns Alibaba and the South China Morning Post, bought 50 per cent of Guangzhou Evergrande in 2014. A five-time CSL champion, the club is coached by Brazil’s Luiz Felipe Scolari, who led the country’s national team to World Cup glory in 2002. As well as Scolari, it has three Brazilian stars on its books: Ricardo Goulart, Alan and Paulinho. Another superstar, Robinho, played for the club for six months last year, before returning home.

“What I like most about the Chinese players is how easily they assimilate new techniques,” Scolari told This Week in Asia in a rare interview.

One of the biggest spenders in the CSL, Guangzhou Evergrande lifted the Asian Champions League in 2013 and 2015. But not all Brazilian coaches are as lucky. Vanderlei Luxemburgo, who was hired by Tianjin Quanjian, went to China with his whole entourage of 11 aides and had to come back in less than six months when he was fired in early June after the team’s sixth straight defeat.

The Brazilian players hired by Luxemburgo, such as Luis Fabiano, Geuvanio and Jadson, are now training under Italian coach Fabio Cannavaro.

Menezes, who coached Shandong Luneng for seven months, also had to resign in June after the team had a poor run, winning just one match out of 10. But it wasn’t all in vain. “In seven months in China, I made what would take me six years in Brazil,” he said, even as he stressed the “challenges” of playing in China.

Concessions for Guangzhou as mainlanders make up 11th confirmed club in Hong Kong Premier League

“Challenge” is a word that crops up frequently in conversations with Brazilian players and coaches in China, with some handling it better than the others.

“It’s all been very smooth. Soon after I came, my wife, my son and my daughter followed. They have adapted to China very well,” said Gil – Carlos Gilberto do Nascimento Silva – the 29-year-old centre back for Shandong Luneng who transferred from Corinthians for US$9.5 million.

Asked how he communicates with Chinese players, he said: “We have an interpreter here who helps us out. We also speak a little English, which helps.”

It hasn’t been that easy for Fabiano, Sao Paulo’s top goalscorer in 2013 who now plays for Tianjin Quanjian after stints with Rennes (France), Porto (Portugal) and Sevilla (Spain).

“Of course I encountered many new things here both in everyday life and in football,” said the striker. “It’s a developing football market, and it’s a new team, so it’s understandable. I regard it as a challenge in my career.”

The biggest challenge is, of course, translating the millions of dollars spent on foreign players into results: for the Chinese clubs and the quality of football played in the country in general.

The goal of third-placed Shanghai SIPG, coached by former England and Manchester City manager Sven-Goran Eriksson, to dethrone Guangzhou Evergrande from the top spot remains a distant dream after its recent defeats at the hands of Shanghai Greenland Shenhua and Liaoning Whowin. Shandong Luneng, meanwhile, has been flirting with relegation from the top league after losing match after match this season.

With the exception of Guangzhou Evergrande lifting the Asian Champions League in two out of the past three years, overall football standards do not appear to have changed much.

The Chinese men’s team currently ranks 81st out of 204 nations in the Fifa league table, below nations like Morocco and Burkina Faso. The men’s team did not qualify for the Olympics, but the women’s team, which gets just a fraction of the attention and money, did.­

According to Edson Tavares, who in 1997 became the first Brazilian coach to move to China, the recent Brazilian influx hasn’t amounted to much.

“Looking at the performance of the clubs where Brazilians play, you realise that they haven’t been very helpful.”

Despite the millions being spent, money can buy only so much. “The footballing infrastructure is excellent in China. They don’t do well because of poor management,” says Menezes. “The main partner is often a state-owned company, there is a lot of interference in club affairs, and most club staff are politically affiliated. That’s why China’s football is not doing as well as its economy.”

Greco, the celebrity TV commentator, agrees, warning the shopping spree by Chinese clubs may not necessarily make China a soccer power.

“You don’t create Real Madrids, Manchester Uniteds, Milans, Benficas and Barcelonas overnight. If you could, the Americans would have done it long ago. But look at them, US clubs may be making money but their global impact is negligible.

“Maybe the same will happen to China: a lot of money, full houses, stars, but no big bang.”

Greco then pauses, as if mulling over what he just said, and adds: “But then, the Chinese are a determined lot. When they aim for something, it’s difficult to stop them.”

If Greco is on the money, Liu Chaoyang and his friends might one day be training for the Olympics after all.