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Wu Lei: Espanyol and China forward is making an impression in La Liga

Wu Lei Espanyol
Image: Wu Lei has impressed since joining Espanyol in January, and he has a large following in China

Chinese forward Wu Lei has had an encouraging start since joining Espanyol in January. James Walker-Roberts looks at his form on the pitch, what he has done off the pitch, and what it means for Chinese football…

He's only played 464 minutes, made five starts and scored one goal, yet Wu Lei has made an impact in La Liga like few others this season.

After signing him for two million euros in January, Espanyol said Wu's official presentation "had a reach of 350 million people in China". His debut, which lasted 12 minutes as a substitute, was reportedly watched by 40 million people in his homeland, compared to 177,000 in Spain.

To put those figures into context, Spanish newspaper Marca reported that El Clasico, which was played a few days before Wu's debut, attracted 10 million viewers. And Espanyol's previous 17 matches had apparently been watched by just over seven million people.

Wu Lei Espanyol
Image: Wu has made an encouraging start with Espanyol

These sorts of numbers might raise eyebrows as clubs have been questioned in the past for signing players from Asia seemingly in a bid to boost shirt sales and worldwide marketability rather than improve the team.

Zhang Chengdong, for example, became the first Chinese footballer to play in La Liga in 2015, but notched up just nine minutes of action. Even that much game-time was perhaps fortunate as Rayo head coach Paco Jemez greeted the move by saying: "This is possibly the worst decision that has been taken since I've been here. You can't allow a sponsor to bring in a player."

There was also the story last season of nine Saudi Arabian footballers joining Spanish clubs in January. Only one - nicknamed the "Saudi Messi" - managed any action and he only got 10 minutes for Levante. Numancia did get a sponsorship deal with a Saudi telecoms company though.

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Espanyol also have a Chinese connection off the pitch as they are owned by Chinese billionaire Chen Yansheng. However, not only has Wu boosted shirt sales, marketability, Espanyol's social media presence and viewing figures, but he has also had an impact on the pitch, albeit a limited impact in a short time.

Wu Lei scored his first La Liga goal against Real Valladolid on Saturday
Image: Wu scored his first La Liga goal against Real Valladolid

After a cameo role for his debut against Villarreal on February 3, he came on in the 34th minute of Espanyol's next match against Rayo Vallecano due to an injury to Pablo Piatti. It was Wu's home debut and he won a penalty when he was fouled from behind and was warmly applauded by supporters for his performance.

Sergi Darder, who scored the winner against Rayo, said the team have been impressed by Wu's quick adaptation to the league.

"When he arrived we thought we'd wait and see, because he had been out of action and because it would have been normal for him to need some time to adapt to this new league. We didn't expect that he'd be so decisive so quickly."

This has always been his big dream since I have known him six years ago, so he is very eager to make an impact. Right now Espanyol is a good match for him in a top league, but with not too much pressure
Mads Davidsen, former technical director at Shanghai SIPG

Even Wu, who has apparently undergone extra physical work to help him adapt to the league, acknowledged that he "didn't expect to play so much so soon".

Wu has since made five starts for Espanyol and scored his first goal in a 3-1 win over Valladolid. He received a standing ovation when he was taken off in the game and gave his shirt to a sobbing fan after the match.

So far so good for Wu, who was also a hit in China before moving to Spain. He is the second-highest top scorer in Chinese Super League history with 102 goals and netted 27 in 29 games for champions Shanghai SIPG last season.

Wu Lei Espanyol gives shirt to fan
Image: Wu points to a fan before giving them his shirt

"He has gained a solid level and a lot of confidence being the best player in China the recent years, so he believes he has a chance," says Mads Davidsen, former technical director at Shanghai SIPG and currently football consultant with his own company Optima Football in London.

"Furthermore, this has always been his big dream since I have known him six years ago, so he is very eager to make an impact.

"Right now Espanyol is a good match for him in a top league, but with not too much pressure. Here he can develop calmly and try reach another level."

Few Chinese players have been able to reach the next level in Europe. There has been talk about clubs wanting a Yao Ming - the Chinese basketball player who was a huge success in the NBA - in a bid to attract fans and build their support. But that's perhaps more difficult than it sounds.

Remember Zhang Yuning? He was signed by West Brom - under Chinese ownership - in 2017 and then immediately loaned to Werder Bremen for two years.

Werder Bremen's sporting director Frank Baumann said when Zhang arrived that "he will certainly not rock the league immediately". He made just two appearances on the bench and was then sent back to West Brom before another loan spell and then a move back to China earlier this year.

Zhang Yuning of Werder Bremen poses during the team presentation at Weser Stadium on July 19, 2017 in Bremen, Germany.
Image: Zhang Yuning did not make a big impression at Werder Bremen

There have been a number of other examples like Zhang, but Wu appears to have the potential to succeed.

"I have no doubt that he has the capability to play in a top league, in a decent team," said former China international Xie Hui, who worked with Wu as an assistant coach at Shanghai.

"He always had this dream so he would talk to me and say, 'Oh, but what about the language?' But football is a common language. I told him not to worry, the most important is on the pitch and the training ground. They will respect you if you show it on the pitch, it's as simple as that."

Even before Wu's arrival, La Liga has been pushing to capitalise on the Chinese market.

In recent seasons La Liga have introduced earlier kick-off times to try to improve viewership and they may develop that further in the coming years. La Liga president Javier Tebas has also travelled to China to discuss youth development, coaching and women's football, among other issues.

Wu Lei Shanghai SIPG
Image: Wu joined Espanyol from Shanghai SIPG

"We want Chinese people to view La Liga as the second most important league in the world, alongside their own league and we want to maximise that potential," Tebas told Marca recently.

Wu is certainly playing in his part in helping La Liga grow their brand in China. He has only once been on the losing side for Espanyol and the club's form has improved significantly since his arrival.

After losing nine of 10 league matches and looking as though they would be battling relegation, Espanyol have moved up to 13th place, nine points above the relegation zone.

Wu was also part of the China side that reached the quarter-finals of the Asian Cup earlier this year.

China - now managed by former Italy defender Fabio Cannavaro - made the final of the competition when they hosted it in 2004, but have not made it past the quarter-finals since. Mads Davidsen says Wu's move to Espanyol might help give Chinese football a lift.

Fabio Cannavaro during the AFC Champions League Round of 16 first leg match between Tianjin Quanjian and Guangzhou Evergrande.
Image: Fabio Cannavaro has taken charge of China for the China Cup

"Chinese football needs a role model to make it in Europe and show kids, fans and everyone that Chinese players can perform on the highest level. China has put a lot of effort into their development the recent years, but still needs patience and a structured plan to fulfil for a long time to see a long-term development.

"As he is the first Chinese player in many years to realistically have a chance to succeed, he is followed with great interest back home in China, so there is a big sense of hope not only for Wu Lei, but for the future of Chinese football in this case.

"The league is getting better and the Chinese teams can compete in the Asian Champions League, but with the national team there is still not much improvement."

How much can Wu help the growth of Chinese football?

Two years ago the Chinese Football Association unveiled a strategy to become a "world football superpower" by 2050. There were also plans to get 50 million children and adults playing the game by 2020.

The numbers that have watched Wu's early success with Espanyol suggests he might have an impact in the short term. If he continues to impress then perhaps he can impact the long term too...

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