By Daniel Alvarenga
SINTRA, Portugal, Feb 22 (Reuters) - 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.
"It's been worth it given how I have evolved as a player."
Zhou, born in Henan province in central China, idolises Manchester United winger Nani and so is overjoyed to be playing in Massama.
"I could not believe that Nani had practised here as a youngster. I am so proud of stepping on the same pitches as he did," he said with a grin.
Nani grew up in nearby Amadora and, when he was 14, had a three-year spell at Real Massama, the club that regularly hosts the Chinese squad's practices.
The group landed in Portugal with big dreams.
"They are all fans of Ronaldo and (Lionel) Messi and always try to mimic their tricks in practice," said Zhu Guanghu, a former China national head coach and one of the project coaches.
"I really hope they fulfil their dreams which are to play in Europe for a big team and, who knows, maybe even in the Champions League one day."
The players are still linked to their clubs in China but signed for a handful of Portuguese lower-tier sides, with whom they play and practise.
Within their busy schedule they also have joint sessions under coaches Gomes and Zhu and play friendlies against local competition.
"The pace of the game is the biggest difference. They play so much faster here in Portugal," said skilful 18-year-old forward Yang Ailong who has adapted well to the change of scale.
The forward remains linked to Chinese Super League club Changchun Yatai, one of the biggest in China's northeastern Jilin province which has a population of some 27 million.
He now plays with neighbourhood club Sacavenense, in Portugal's third division. Portugal's total population is just below 11 million and the Sacavem parish near Lisbon has 18,000 residents.
"Portuguese football is much better than Chinese," said Yang after showing off some skilful tricks in practice. "Thanks to this programme I believe I will be in the (senior) national team one day and maybe stay to play in Europe."
Gomes said one of Portugal's key advantages was that it had hundreds of competitive clubs spread across a small country whereas in China, which has 32 professional football teams, youngsters faced logistical problems.
"There is usually one club per city in China and, as you know, they are very distant from each other. This means that for there to be a weekly youngsters' championship they would have to start travelling two or three days before each match," he said. "How would they go to school doing this?"
With Portuguese football severely hit by a debt crisis, China's much-welcomed investment in the clubs follows a wider trend of Chinese companies buying into Portuguese ones.
Gomes said that when they signed the initial contract for the first six Chinese players to come to Portugal, it was agreed that local clubs would get 20,000 euros ($26,700) in exchange for their training for one season.
"I will not say how much the clubs receive now but we are indeed supporting them through subsidies to coaches, bonuses for games and helping clubs' finances," Qi Chen, one of the programme heads, told Reuters.
"Sure, there is no country like China when we talk economic growth these days but, football-wise, Portugal is way ahead. That is why we are here." ($1 = 0.7487 euros) (Editing by Clare Fallon)