A game of soccer is underway beneath a hazy afternoon sun.
At first glance, it looks like any other you might encounter in Brazil, a nation celebrated for its unwavering addiction to this sport.
A group of teenage boys in brightly colored shirts battles for the ball, urged on by a coach who is barking instructions with the ferocity of a drill sergeant.
Look again, though, and you soon spot a difference: Not one of these young and skillful players is Brazilian. They are all Chinese.
China is engaged in a massive drive to try to extend its "soft power" across Latin America by investing heavily on multiple fronts, from oil and gas to seaports and hydroelectric power stations. Forging closer ties through soccer — or futebol, as Brazilians call it — is part of the mix.
These Chinese players have traveled some 11,000 miles to learn how to become top-quality professional soccer stars from a country that has won five World Cups — more than any other nation.
They are being trained at a soccer academy in southeast Brazil, a cluster of modern apricot-colored buildings surrounded by soccer pitches and set amid rolling farmland outside a town called Porto Feliz.
The academy belongs to Desportivo Brasil, a boys and girls club set up in 2005 by a Brazilian entrepreneur who wanted to nurture marketable young players from the region; it has a professional team, comprising mostly Brazilian players, that competes at state level.
Four years ago, Desportivo was purchased by Shandong Luneng, three times champion of the Chinese Super League and one of China's most successful clubs.
Each year Shandong sends members of its youth teams to the academy for 10 months of soccer coupled with regular school lessons, including classes in Portuguese, the national language. They receive coaching from Brazilians and play against Brazilian teams, although only in unofficial "friendly" games.
It's a "really, really good experience" for these young Chinese players, says Leonardo Galbes, the Brazilian coach of the under-16s from Shandong. Becoming a top professional in the ruthless world of soccer is a tough proposition anywhere, but Galbes believes that among the players from Shandong are "three guys with a good potential to play at a high level."
This year's crop includes Paierman Kuerbantayi, a 17-year-old midfielder who came to Brazil to pursue a "very difficult" personal dream: to play for China, and in the World Cup.
"This is my big dream," he declares.
That dream fits in with the grandiose ambitions of China's leadership, particularly President Xi Jinping, an avid soccer fan who is keenly aware of the benefits of using the sport to project soft power across the planet.
China has qualified for the World Cup finals only once, in 2002, when it failed to win a game or score a goal. It currently stands in 76th position in the rankings by FIFA, soccer's governing body. That's two places behind Syria, and nine behind the tiny Cape Verdes Islands. (Brazil, by contrast, is ranked third.)
In 2015, China unveiled a major package of proposals that it hopes will enable it to rise beyond this lowly status and become a global soccer superpower capable of one day winning the World Cup. The plan includes overhauling the sport in China from top to bottom, rooting out corruption in management and investing in tens of thousands of training schools.
Some big names in Brazilian soccer are helping the Chinese effort to raise their game, by moving to China — in some cases, for colossal pay — to join top clubs. The 23 Brazilian stars currently playing in the Chinese Super League include players selected multiple times by Brazil's celebrated national team — among them, Oscar, Hulk and Paulinho. Shandong has three highly rated Brazilians in its first-team squad.
"Our goal is to make our football competitive in the world scenario," says Qu Yuhui, political adviser at the Chinese Embassy in Brasília, Brazil's capital. "But it's not something you can achieve in one day or two."
China's interest in Brazil extends far beyond its desire to master soccer skills. Its relationship with Latin America's largest nation has grown remarkably in recent years. China's appetite for soybeans, oil and iron ore has helped make it Brazil's No. 1 trading partner. Trade has spawned a surge in investment. In recent years, Chinese companies have poured money into Brazil amid — and, perhaps, because of — deep recession and a tsunami of corruption scandals in the South American country. Chinese investment in Brazil rose from an estimated $5 billion in 2009 to some $60 billion in 2016, according to research by the Atlantic Council, a think tank in Washington, D.C.
"The Chinese presence is increasingly expanding everywhere, with football, with services, with banks, with industry, high-tech sectors," says Luiz Augusto de Castro Neves, chair of the China-Brazil Business Council, an association that promotes dialogue between companies of the two countries.
"They want to know everything. They want to acquire ... the relevant technology but they have also been very respectful of our institutional framework."
Evidence abounds of China's expanding footprint. This year a Chinese company bought a controlling stake in Brazil's second-largest container port, a terminal in the southern city of Paranaguá that ships goods across the Atlantic. A trendy new car, the Tiggo 2, built by Chinese automaker Chery and Brazil's Caoa Group, recently began plying the roads of Brazil. A popular Brazilian ride-hailing service called 99, set up to compete with Uber, passed into Chinese ownership.
Qu, the Chinese diplomat, describes the Brazil-China relationship as "business, business, business," adding that it is market-oriented, "decided by supply and demand on both sides."
Until recently, China's advance into Brazil seems to have been largely ignored by the Brazilian public. Unlike the United States, China has not so far left much of an imprint on Brazilian popular culture: Brazilians struggle to name a Chinese dish, let alone a musician.
Yet China's role has emerged as an issue in the lead-up to this weekend's presidential election. The far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro, a retired army captain who leads the polls, has made numerous speeches advocating strong commercial relations with China, yet fulminating about China being allowed to "buy Brazil."
Soccer, though, is different. Brazilians are intensely proud of the wizardry they bring to the game; there is little evidence they resent sharing their genius with others.
Sending young players from China to learn from Brazilians is the "correct thing to do," says Leonardo Meireles, sports editor of Correio Braziliense newspaper, because, he says, "we're the best!"
"We play with joy, you know. Football is in our soul," he explains.
Even so, Meireles is far from confident that China's investment will pay dividends anytime soon.
Asked how long it will be before soccer fans can hope to see a Chinese team lift the World Cup, he pauses before replying bluntly: "50 years."
NPR news assistant Valdemar Geo contributed reporting to this story.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Finally, today, our visit with another of this year's MacArthur Foundation Fellowship winners - the so-called genius grants. The 2018 class includes many artists and scientists and performers and the Reverend William Barber II. Reverend Barber might be best known for his Moral Monday protest outside of the statehouse in North Carolina. He was among the first to draw attention to strategies that he said were aimed at suppressing the participation of poor and minority voters. He's led nonviolent protests across the country to fight poverty and racism. And the Reverend William Barber II is with us now on the line from North Carolina.
Thank you so much for joining us. Congratulations to you.
WILLIAM BARBER II: Thank you so much.
MARTIN: So how did you react when you first heard this news that you had been awarded this prize?
BARBER: Well, you know, you don't know. It's anonymous. You don't even know they're following you, don't know who sent your name in. They called me. I told them to stop playing. I thought it was a prank. Then they said, no, this is for real. Then the next thing for me was tears. I thought about all the things that my parents have done and sacrificed and all of the years of just working and trying to serve. It was kind of overwhelming.
And, you know, especially when - in the work I do, a lot of times, people are very, very nasty in their criticisms. They say you're doing it for money. You're doing it for attention. They question your motives when the reality is, you know, you just want to love people and see justice (unintelligible). You want to see people have voting rights and people have health care and people treated right regardless of their race, their color, their creed, their sexuality. So a gift like this says somebody else sees what you're trying to do, and they want to be a part of you continuing to do that work.
So when they told me that the announcement had come out, I was actually in custody from standing with low-wage workers and nurses and people working at McDonald's. And that's what I was doing.
MARTIN: We usually think of this grant that goes to people in the science and art worlds to stimulate creativity. So talk to me about the role that creativity plays in activism.
BARBER: Well, you know, in every age, we know what works if people are going to make a difference. We know that non-violent civil disobedience works. We know that protest works. We know that voting works. But, in every age, there's different - you have to face it a different way. In the 1800s, for instance, they were just trying to get the right to vote. Now and in the 1960s, today, we're trying to hold on to what we won before and then press on to what we need to yet see done.
You know, we are trying to hold on to basic voting rights, but we also want to get to where everybody 18 is automatically registered, and where voting is a holiday, and where same-day registration and early voting is something that happens in every state. You know, years ago, people were fighting just to talk about health care. Now, today, we're trying to hold onto the affirmative - the Affordable Care Act and expand it to universal healthcare. So it takes - it requires a certain understanding of the times.
MARTIN: But how do you - but - I mean, I'm thinking about things like, how do you get people to see these issues in a fresh way, which is kind of the essence of creativity? I mean, some of your techniques like preaching, speaking, writing, demonstrating - those are classics. But you've also done things that are kind of - like, you know, give me an example of kind of like a fresh way to get people to look at something that they think that they already understand.
BARBER: Well, you know, you remix. I mean, James Brown was classic soul, but the rap was remix. So you remix it.
So what you do is - for instance, back in the day, they had freedom schools that teach them. And what we did with Moral Monday is - and what we do around the country - we do something called the MPOLIS - the Moral Political Organizing Leadership Institute and Summit. And what we do is we bring people together of all different races, creeds, colors and classes, and we say, OK. Let's look at voter suppression - for instance, the real numbers, the empirical data, 26 states. We said, now let's - those same states are high-poverty states. Those same states pass laws against immigrant people and gay people. Those same states have denied Medicaid expansion. Those same states deny union rights.
So if the same states that pass racialized voter suppression and the people that get elected because of racialized voter suppression then use their election to hurt mostly white people and mostly poor people, and we show people that empirically, then they began to say, oh, wait a minute. We're fighting the same people. The same people that are attacking immigrants are the ones attacking health care. The same people that are attacking health care are the ones that are attacking voting rights.
And so if they are cynical enough to be together, we have to be smart enough to come together. That is the way in which you remix, if you will, what was done in the past, and you expand it in the present.
MARTIN: So before we wrap up here, as you mentioned at the outset, that this is not a lifetime achievement award. This is an investment in you to launch whatever it is you want to do next. As you know, one of the MacArthur genius grant winners previously was Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote "Hamilton." So, you know, no pressure. What do you want...
MARTIN: What are you going to do with the grant? Have you thought about it?
BARBER: Well, I know what I'm going to do with life. And, however the grant continues, I don't see any other reason for me to be alive than to work on these issues of racism and poverty and ecological devastation or economy and trying to build what I call moral analysis, moral articulation and moral action. I'm deep-diving into the poor people's campaigning through Repairers of the Breach that our organization and I lead. I'm in my church where I'm pastor - Greenleaf Christian Church.
And I don't know, Michel, if what we do will sow the seed of future transformation or if we will see the victories in the current time in which we live. But what I do know is, as for me and my house, as the scriptures say, we're going to continue to serve this cause because we believe that love and justice and mercy - those things are important, and there's nothing more important than serving.
MARTIN: That's the Reverend William J. Barber II. He's the pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, N.C. He's the founder and president of Repairers of the Breach. As you just heard, he's the author of many books, and he is now a 2018 recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship - a so-called genius grant. Reverend
Barber, thank you so much for talking to us.
BARBER: Love you much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.