Wu Lei – From China to Catalonia

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It’s the 5th December 2015 four months after Zhang Chengdong became the first Chinese player to set foot in La Liga arriving as he did on a season long loan from Chinese Super League side Beijing Guoan. Rayo Vallecano are hosting Getafe in the first leg of their Last 32 Copa Del Rey tie. The then 25-year-old started at right back, playing 66 minutes of the home side’s 2-0 victory.

Having already had experience on the Iberian Peninsula with Portuguese sides CD Mafra, União Leiria and Beira-Mar along with a twelve game spell in Germany at Eintracht Braunschweig there was some hope that Zhang, a Chinese International, would bring something on the pitch as well as towards the Rayo coffers. Unfortunately that didn’t prove to be the case, and his only other appearance came 25 days later, a ten minute cameo during a 2-0 defeat to Rayo’s city rivals Atletico Madrid. At the end of the season he returned to Beijing having played a total of 76 minutes for Paco Jemez’s side. The next season he moved to Hebei China Fortune where he currently ply’s his trade.

Zhang was one of La Liga’s first forays into an Asian market that has become an ongoing obsession not only of those who run the league (La Liga TV advertises kick offs in CET (Central European Time), New York and Beijing time) but also to the clubs within it too. This is perhaps best illustrated in the excellent Six Dreams series that follows the pursuit of Takashi Inui’s signature during the 2017/18 season by both Real Betis and Girona. Inui’s dynamism since his arrival at Ipurua had already singled him out as a player to be coveted but it was perhaps the Eibar midfielder’s commercial reach in Japan that was viewed as even more important by the Sporting Directors in both Seville and Catalonia. Such was Inui’s impact in Spain that in 2016 the first ever Eibar Supporters Club in Japan was set up. This is Eibar! A team based in a town of 27,000 playing in the smallest stadium in the Spanish top flight. Even after Inui’s eventual departure to Los Verdiblancos in the summer Eibar’s link to the Land of the Rising Sun remained with the Basque side setting up a cultural partnership with J-League team Tokyo Verdy.

Inui is not the only example and whilst the success of Japanese and Korean imports have now become the norm, not only in Spain but across Europe, Chinese players have continued to struggle to make their mark outside of their homeland with perhaps only the modest success of players such as Li Tie (Everton) and Zheng Zhi (Charlton Athletic & Celtic) being of any real note.

Enter Wu Lei, Espanyol’s €2m signing from Shanghai SIPG, the Catalan’s side Chinese owners The Rastar Group being viewed as key protagonists in getting the deal over the line. With the previously mentioned Zhang Chengdong the only reference point for most Spanish fans and media the move has been met with much scepticism and in some circles written off as merely “strategic”, an attempt to get a slice of the increasingly lucrative Chinese market as opposed to improving performances on the pitch. Wu Lei is not your average Chinese footballer though.

He arrived at the RCDE Stadium having scored 120 goals in 217 games for the defending Chinese Super League champions at a rate of 0.55 goals per game. He has been the Chinese Super League Top Goalscorer every year since 2013 and been a member of the league’s Team of the Season for just one year less. A not inconsiderable feat when you consider the array of stars that have turned up in China over recent years including former teammates Hulk and Oscar to name but two. His 2018 ended with him being crowned both Chinese Football Association (for all players) and Chinese Footballer (for Chinese only players) of the Year. If ever there was a time for Espanyol’s owners to make a move this was it.

They were understandably quick to heap praise on their new signing with an official statement hailing his arrival as “one of the most important in the sides modern history”. There was no bedding in period though with Los Periquitos in the midst of a nine game winless run. He was named on the bench for their trip to Villarreal, the La Liga TV cameras tracking his every move and reaction to the play raging before him. With 12 minutes remaining and his side facing up to yet another defeat he entered the fray. An estimated viewership of over 40 million in his homeland saw his new side pull back a one goal deficit to earn a point at the Estadio de La Ceramica.

His home debut followed just six days later agaisnt Rayo Vallecano after an injury to Argentine forward Pablo Piatti brought La Liga’s latest Asian sensation into the action. On 72 minutes the striker picked up the ball and cut inside the penalty area beating first one, and then another Rayo defender before being brought down, VAR confirming the referee’s original decision to point to the spot. Borja Iglesias converted the resulting penalty and an injury time Sergei Dardar winner ensured that Espanyol’s long winless run had finally come to an end. His first start, a 0-0 draw away to Valencia, passed without much fanfare however in his side’s next games at home to Huesca and then Real Valladolid Wu started to show that he had the ability to help drag his new side away from the bottom of the table. Against Huesca his improvised half volley was well saved by keeper Roberto Santamaria before another mazy run coming in from the left saw his effort smack off the near post. Eight days later, again at the RCDE Stadium, he made his most telling impact to date. Firstly a flick on from a deep cross fell to Mario Hermoso who put the Catalan’s 2-1 up against their visitors from Castille y Leon. Then on the 65th minute in front of another gargantuan viewing audience of 25m+ in his homeland he latched on to a through ball from Sergei Dardar before calmly sliding the ball past Jordi Masip in the opposing goal, sealing a victory for his rejuvenated side.

In his five appearance since his arrival he has scored once, assisted twice and looked more than comfortable in his new footballing environment creating chances and contributing to an upturn in his new side’s form. Whilst it is still early days the €2m fee that Espanyol’s owners paid has the makings of being the bargain of the season not just commercially but on the field as well. Zhang Chengdong and Wu Lei are currently international team mates and whilst in the red shirt of the People’s Republic of China they may for some be seen as equals, it’s safe to say that in just five games Espanyol’s newest acquisition has easily surpassed the achievements of his compatriot four years ago.

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