Six days after touching down in China’s far west, Rudnei da Rosa, or Lu Dini as he is now known, is still trying to find his feet.
“I don’t know if it’s because of my skin colour or what,” says the 1.89m black Brazilian footballer. “But when I’m walking down the street, people stare so much they nearly trip over. It’s like they can’t quite believe their eyes.”
Rosa, a 31-year-old midfielder, was born and raised in Florianópolis, a fashionable beach city in Brazil’s deep south.
Since mid-April his home has been Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang and reputedly the most landlocked city on Earth. Near China’s border with Kazakhstan, Pakistan and Afghanistan, it is almost 2?414km closer to Kabul than Beijing.
Rosa is the latest addition to China’s rapidly growing squad of Brazilian footballers – a group Chinese managers hope will turbocharge their clubs’ rise to glory and boost President Xi Jinping’s bid to transform his country into a footballing superpower.
Earlier this month, as Rosa prepared to jet into Urumqi – a metropolis of about three million residents at the foot of the snowcapped Tianshan mountains – Beijing unveiled plans to revolutionise the Chinese game. According to the multibillion-pound blueprint, China, which already boasts the world’s largest football academy, will have 20?000 specialist football academies and more than 30-million students regularly playing the sport by 2020.
World Cup hopes
By 2050, Xi, who spin doctors say is a football fanatic, hopes his country will be capable of hosting, and perhaps even lifting, the World Cup.
Sun Aijun, the chairman of Rosa’s new side, Xinjiang Tianshan Leopard FC, said he was convinced Brazil’s samba boys could help propel his League One club into the top flight, the Chinese Super League, and transform the Chinese game by sharing their skills with homegrown footballers.
“I think Brazil can help Chinese football more than other countries. Just look at my team – we have three of them,” said Sun, a property magnate who is planning his first trip to the South American country this year.
Asked to explain his fondness for Brazilian imports, Sun grinned: “As far as I know, Brazil has a population of 200-million; 100-million of them play football and the other 100-million are football managers. Everyone in Brazil loves football.”
Professional players have been swapping Brazil, home to the joga bonito or beautiful game, for China – whose national team Fifa ranks 81st in the world below Benin, Belarus, Israel and Zambia – for about two decades. Among the first to arrive, in 1995, was Marcelo Marmelo da Silva, a nimble-footed midfielder who traded Rio for Sichuan province and became known as China’s “black butterfly”.
But in recent years that trickle has turned into a torrent.
Chinese clubs, often bankrolled by cash-flush state-owned enterprises or real estate firms, reportedly splashed out $373-million on foreign players in the latest transfer window, including some of Brazil’s biggest stars. Recent imports include Alex Teixeira (sold to Jiangsu Suning in February for £38.4-million), Ramires (sold to the same team a month earlier for £25-million), Gil (sold to Shandong Luneng for about £7.8-million) and Diego Tardelli (also sold to Shandong Luneng in January 2015 for a more modest £4.3-million).
According to the Brazilian FA, 31 Brazilian players moved to China in 2014 and 2015.
Top Brazilian managers including Luiz Felipe Scolari, Vanderlei Luxemburgo and Mano Menezes are also flocking east, with the latter reportedly earning in excess of £300?000 each month to manage Shandong Luneng.
“It’s as if they have discovered a gold mine,” Luis Paulo Rosenberg, the former vice-president of the São Paulo club Corinthians, said of the way his fellow countrymen were invading the Middle Kingdom.
Coach Luiz Felipe Scolari of Guangzhou Evergrande has been recruited to build football in China. (Zhong Zhi, Getty)
When the Bahia-born striker Vicente de Paula Neto first came to China in 2004 there were just three Brazilians in Chinese teams.
“It was tough. There were hardly any,” said Vicente, now 36, who learned his trade in Salvador’s impoverished and violence-stricken Cabula neighbourhood and is now the longest-serving Brazilian in professional Chinese football.
“Today there are more than 30, if you put both the first and second divisions together. Thank God the market is growing and no doubt there will be more Brazilians arriving to boost the Chinese league even more.”
De Paula, who also plays for Xinjiang’s Leopards and is known to Chinese commentators as Wei Sente, has become a fans’ favourite since joining the club in 2013.
After a hard-fought victory one freezing night last November the jubilant forward sprinted off the pitch and hurled his shirt, shorts, socks and boots into the crowd, Sun, the chairman, recalled. “All he was left with was his underwear. It was so cold. Have you ever seen anything like this before? Everyone loves him. The Brazilian passion is a real inspiration for us.”
Despite fears that the arrival of so many foreigners might rob opportunities from young Chinese players, De Paula said emerging Chinese talents would benefit from the skills his country’s players offered. “Nothing compares to the Brazilian technique; the trickery, the cunning. I think this is really valuable to [the Chinese players]. They are fast. Some of them are skilful. But there are still some things they need to add to their game to get to a high level.”
For Brazilian players, moving to China is mostly about boosting their bank balances.
Rosenberg, who brought the first Chinese footballer to a Brazilian club in 2012, said most players saw football as an elevator to lift their families from poverty. “Playing in Brazil helps take them from the ground floor to the 5th,” he said. “Then suddenly along comes a Chinese guy and takes them to the 40th.”
Rosa, who has three children and a wife in Brazil, admits his move from Florianópolis to Xinjiang was not driven by a burning desire to explore the ancient Silk Road.
“Let’s be honest about it: it’s the money,” he says during a break from his first training session at the Xinjiang Sports Centre Stadium. “Football is growing here and, like it or not, this is where they are paying well. That’s why everyone is coming. It’s too good to turn down.”
Rosenberg said the chance to snap up South American proponents of the beautiful game was also irresistible for China, particularly in the wake of Brazil’s dramatic economic slump and the plunge of its currency, which meant even top players were now comparatively cheap.
“The Chinese players who are playing alongside these Brazilians will see a different type of football and this will help them grow to reach the same level.”
Rosenberg said Xi’s football revolution, coupled with the arrival of foreign reinforcements, meant China’s woeful national side would, in the not-too-distant future, rival Brazil’s storied “seleção”.
The transition is not always straightforward for Brazil’s roving footballers.
In an interview with the Brazilian media, Tardelli, a Brazilian who lives in Shandong’s capital, Jinan, complained of the limited leisure options in his new home – “two shopping malls, that’s it” – and admitted he was still baffled by some aspects of Chinese life.
“The Chinese have a very odd habit of allowing their young kids to pee anywhere,” Tardelli said. “The other day I was having a scan at the hospital when a mum opened the zipper on her kid’s crawler and he had a wee right in the middle of the hospital.”
Rosa, who lives in a three-star hotel in downtown Urumqi, said he had initially been nervous about moving to China’s western frontier after reading about the security situation in a region notorious for deadly ethnic riots and terror attacks.
“I’ve seen tanks in the street, near the shopping centre, near the hotel we are in,” the footballer said of his first week in the city, where dozens died in a May 2014 bomb attack that authorities blamed on Islamic extremists from Xinjiang’s Uighur ethnic minority.
More accustomed to rice and beans, Rosa said he was also struggling with the cuisine. “There’s so much spice: spice, spice, spice, spice,” he said. “I told Vicente: ‘I can’t take any more.’?”
But with his first home game less than 24 hours away Rosa said he was focused on the football, not the food. “We are here to work and that’s what we’ve got to do.”
The following afternoon the midfielder strode out on to the pitch of Xinjiang’s 40 000-seater stadium for his home debut, a potentially thorny tie against Shanghai Shenxin FC whose team sheet also boasted a Brazilian – a pacy 21-year-old from the gritty suburbs of Rio called Biro-Biro or, to Chinese fans, Biluo Biluo.
More than 5 000 Leopards supporters filled the stands, some waving banners that read: “We fight with you!” and “Xinjiang is here!”, others wearing cowboy hats in the yellow and green of the Brazilian flag.
But after 16 minutes Rosa’s home debut appeared to have been wrecked by his compatriot. Biro-Biro flicked the ball through to a Chinese team-mate who was scythed down as he advanced on the goal.
Goalkeeper Gu Junjie clawed away the subsequent penalty and 10 minutes later the Leopards were ahead after a cross from the right, disputed by the towering Rosa, clattered into the net off defender Cai Xi.
Fans were still celebrating their opener when a quickly taken free kick, masterminded by the injured Vicente and executed by the Chinese player Yan Zhiyu, crept into the net, putting the home side 2-0 up.
After a goalless second half, an elated chairman Sun threw his arms into the air as the referee blew his whistle on four minutes of injury time.
Leopards fans pounded bass drums and chanted “Urra! Urra!” – Uighur for “Come on! Come on!”.
Down by the dugout a smile spread across the face of the latest Brazilian to stamp his mark on the world of Chinese football.
“I’ve arrived – and with a victory!” Rosa shouted in Portuguese before disappearing back down the tunnel in the lime-green uniform of his new club. “Graças a Deus!” – © Guardian News & Media 2016