Soccer students from China are taken through their paces at the USW Sport Park near Cardiff, Wales. (Photo provided to chinadaily.com.cn)
China is forging an unlikely soccer partnership with Wales.
While China dwarfs Wales in size and population, the country that is part of the United Kingdom comprises 3 million people and has punched above its weight in international soccer, reaching the semi-finals of Euro 2016.
Its success has not gone unnoticed and this week China invited Wales, which includes Real Madrid star Gareth Bale, to participate in next year's China Cup.
The four-team international soccer tournament was first held in Nanning, Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, in January, when China hosted Chile, Croatia and Iceland - all international teams that have exceeded expectations in major tournaments.
Craig Gill, a senior lecturer in soccer coaching and performance at the University of South Wales, said the country's soccer ambitions are "very closely aligned to those of China's".
"The national football vision in Wales is: take Welsh football to the world, intensify the power of football at home," Gill said. "Both countries are preparing for the future."
China's deepening ties with Welsh soccer extends to grassroots level.
Gill recently hosted a group of 28 school students from China on an eight-day soccer training camp at the USW Sport Park in Pontypridd, 20 kilometers north of the Welsh capital Cardiff.
The trip was organized by the British Council and the China Federation of University and School Sport. It involved teams of boys and girls playing against local sides from Swansea, Cardiff and Newport.
The students also visited the academies and stadiums of two professional league teams based in Wales - Swansea City, of the Premier League, and Cardiff City, which plays in the second-tier Championship.
Such development programs flow from President Xi Jinping's vision to transform China into a soccer superpower by 2050, laid out last year in a 50-point plan.
As well as raising the game at the junior level, the plan calls for improved coaching in China, where Wales again is participating.
In August this year, Cardiff City was involved in designing a program to recruit and enroll Chinese students on a three-year coaching course at the University of South Wales.
Cardiff City Chief Executive Ken Choo said the club is working closely with the university and Welsh government officers in Beijing to develop new talent.
"They'll be able to witness how we operate and hopefully transfer it in their future careers," Choo said.