Five scores of years ago, "learning the tricks of the barbarians (invading European powers) in order to compete with them" was the consensus reached among the educated Chinese classes - even if it was resisted somewhat by the ruling Qing Dynasty. A century on, that revolutionary concept has developed into the popular saying "making use of foreigners' knowledge" - and football has been no exception.

A five-year plan
Exclusively sponsored by Jianlibao, a famous home-based beverage company, the project was begun in 1992 when a search for the 80 most talented 15 to 16-year-olds was undertaken through the length and breadth of the nation.  After several competitions, the budding teenagers were whittled down to 22, who, on 11 November 1993 - seven months ahead of the inception of the professional C-League - travelled to Brazil to begin a five-year pilgrimage of learning in the "kingdom of football".

The catalyst for the gutsy move occurred seven years earlier on 19 May, a notorious date in Chinese football history, still referred to as "5/19". It was on that day that China were beaten 2-1 by Hong Kong in Beijing and failed to qualify for the 1986 FIFA World Cup Mexico™. The darkest chapter in China's footballing history was followed by a drop in spectators at stadiums and further attempts to reach World Cups, Italy 90 and USA 94, ended in more misery.

Meanwhile in Brazil there were positive signs emanating from the batch of teenage footballers. After a 19-month training camp in a base near Sao Paulo, the kids returned home defeating virtually all who stood in their way, and showing off a Samba style that was replicated by the waves of returning fans in stadiums.

The so-called "Jianlibao team", as dubbed by media, resumed their study in Sao Paulo in March 1996 but after returning a year later to compete in the FIFA Youth World Championship Malaysia, they disappointed, exiting at the first stage.

Bearing fruits
However they returned to South America, with their third and final period of learning taking place between October 1997 to April 1998, and it has largely been considered a success. Today many of those starlets have become the backbone of the national side. Everton midfielder Li Tie is the most notable revelation, with China captain Li Weifeng, 2003 C-league Player of the Year Zheng Zhi, 2002 C-League topscorer Li Jinyu and national regular Zheng Bin all currently sparkling. Many more of the "Jianlibao" team are important figures in their respective clubs

The team's head coach, Zhu Guanghu, who guided Shenzhen to the Super League title last season, has been named as the new China coach to replace Dutchman Arie Haan.