July 10, 2014 12:00 am JST

Soccer diplomacy leads to a win-win

HIDETAKE MIYAMOTO, Nikkei staff writer & KENJI KAWASE, Nikkei deputy editor

Macanese children train at the Sao Paulo FC soccer school.

SAO PAULO/MACAU -- The Brazilian city of Porto Feliz, around an hour's drive from Sao Paulo, has one of Brazil's largest soccer training centers. Honduras used the facility, built on a 156,000-sq.-meter site and equipped with five pitches, for training during the World Cup.

     In April, well before the World Cup, a group of Chinese visited the center, posing for photos on one of the pitches and holding their national flag. They were officials of Shandong Luneng Taishan, a professional soccer club that had recently bought the training center.

     Traffic Sports, a major Brazil-based sports marketing company, built the $10 million facility. The company has helped build relations between Brazil and Shandong, sending players and coaches east.

     Since the deal, the Brazilian soccer community has been talking about the possibility of Shandong acquiring a Brazilian football club. Speculation aside, the Chinese team is expected to use the training center as a base in Brazil. "Similar investments will follow for years to come," a Chinese businessman involved in the facility's purchase said. 

     Ties between Brazilian and Chinese soccer are deepening. Brazilian players have a high-profile presence in China's professional leagues, and some Chinese players may head the other way. Footballer Chen Zhizhao in 2012 became the first Chinese national to sign up for a Brazilian team, joining the popular Sao Paulo-based club Corinthians.

     A senior executive of Corinthians said Chen, who has had few opportunities to play, was acquired to attract the attention of Asians, noting that the move has proved effective.

Licensed goods

Corinthians' aim is to gain wider public recognition in China. It is looking to expand sales of jerseys, towels and other licensed goods. Globally popular teams, such as Manchester United of the U.K. and FC Barcelona of Spain, both arrange overseas tours to attract fans across the world, a strategy Corinthians is looking to emulate.

     Meanwhile, more Chinese teenagers are visiting Brazil to learn the Latin American way. A Chinese player currently trains with the Botafogo youth squad in Rio de Janeiro. In April, Sao Paulo FC opened a soccer school in Macau, a special administrative region in southern China, in a move to attract fans.

     On a public hockey field in Taipa, Macau, just a few blocks away from Galaxy Macau and other casino resorts on the bustling Cotai strip, seven boys aged 3 to 4 chased soccer balls on a hot July evening. All wore Sao Paulo FC Football School kits. They are potential future players for the Brazilian club.

     "Now we have about 100 kids, but it will soon be 200," Jose Arlindo Filho, principal head coach of Sao Paulo Macau Sports said. Nicknamed "Josecler," the Brazilian coach is eager to pass on his skills to local children. "Yes," he said, "I do see some talent here."

     A group of local and Brazilian investors, including Garrick Wong, brought the Sao Paulo FC school to Macau. "It is a franchiser-franchisee relationship," Wong said. Investors pay fees to the Sao Paulo club and in exchange use its brand name and teach children its training methods. At this point, the only income comes from the 1,000-pataca ($133) a month training fees that parents pay. But Wong is looking to use the Brazilian club's name to get sponsorships and other types of funding to help build up the business.

     The investors want to develop Macau as a regional base and steppingstone into China. There are plans to establish another school in Guangzhou next year and to further develop facilities in either Jiangsu or Zhejiang provinces. "We hope to eventually have our own ... (training complex) in China," Wong said.

     In Brazil, the soccer industry still has plenty of room to develop. Corinthians, Brazil's biggest soccer team in terms of business, has total sales of 359 million real ($162 million). Sales have been growing at a double-digit pace, but the figure is still roughly half that of major European clubs.

     At present, most members of Brazil's national team play in Europe, which poses problems when it comes to Brazilian clubs building business foundations. Perhaps stronger ties between Brazil and China will help Brazilian soccer in this regard.