Wu Lei to Espanyol: A transfer that could prove defining for Chinese football

Wu Lei

The Chinese Super League has been a growing phenomenon in recent years.

Financial power has seen a number of high-profile stars from the European leagues opt for a new adventure over in the Far East.

Many players have rebuilt their careers in China and have then gone on to secure moves back to Europe.

Axel Witsel is now thriving at Borussia Dortmund after a spell with Tianjin Quanjin, while Paulinho also enjoyed a decent year with Barcelona after rediscovering his love for the game with Guangzhou Evergrande.

The Brazilian is back in China now, with fellow Brazilian Anderson Talisca - who is just 25 - by his side.

And in Shanghai, Brazilian pair Oscar and Hulk helped fire SIPG to the Super League title in 2018, ending Guangzhou's monopoly since 2011.

However, despite the influx of foreign names to China, it was one of the league's own countryman which collected the coveted Player of the Year accolade at the end of the season.

Wu Lei, seen by many as the finest player in Chinese football history, scooped the award after notching 27 goals and eight assists - he was once labelled the country's very own Diego Maradona.

Lei is both Shanghai SIPG's and the Super League's all-time leading scorer and he actually made his debut at the of 14 years and 287 days.

Wu Lei signs for Espanyol

And now, the Super League has decided to export their prized asset to Espanyol, the first case of a Chinese 'superstar' gracing European shores.

It could prove to be a watershed moment, similar to Miguel Almiron's move to Newcastle from MLS outfit Atlanta this January, which was also the first of its kind.

To put things into perspective, over 40 million people in China tuned in to watch Lei's debut in the 2-2 draw with Villarreal.

For context, only 177,000 people in Spain watched the fixture, while just 10 million chose to watch the recent Clasico in the Copa del Rey between Barcelona and Real Madrid, per Marca.

That's the kind of viewing power and draw Lei will bring to Spain.


Lei celebrates with SIPG

Of course, a key aspect of this ground-breaking move will be how Lei adapts to the Spanish top-flight.

While for a period of time he will bring in a mammoth audience regardless of game time or goals, a positive impact on the pitch is sorely needed.

Heung Min-Son's stunning form with Tottenham has seen him maintain a constant and almost overwhelming support base from South Korea.

Lei has the potential to bring a lot to Espanyol and Spanish football, a versatile forward capable of playing across the entire front line.

He's good in the air, quick, adept with both feet and was irresistible in front of goal in China.

Lei has all the ingredients and characteristics to emulate something similar to Son's level of success in the Premier League.


Lei with China

The attempted long-term gains of Lei's move - if it is indeed a success - will surely be the expansion of the Chinese player base to the best leagues in world football.

At the time of writing, Lei is the only Chinese player plying his trade in one of Europe's top five leagues.

Ji Xiaoxuan is the next best thing, with the 25-year-old winger currently playing at Ligue 2 side Auxerre.

It seems wrong that a country with a now thriving domestic league and an enormous population has failed to crack the European market with footballing exports.

Can Lei be that trailblazer and ignite the fire for Chinese youngsters to make the move in their younger years? The nation may not have a better shot for the foreseeable future.

The Chinese team at the Asian Cup

China has qualified for just one World Cup, back in 2002 where they were eliminated at the group stage, losing all three games and failing to score a single goal.

Even in the AFC Asian Cup, Team Dragon has failed to be anything near a dominant force, with their runner-up spot as host nation back in 2004 their best finish to date.

In the recent Asian Cup under Marcello Lippi, China were beaten 3-0 by Iran in the quarter-final in what turned out to be Lippi's final game in charge.

The key to success in the next decade may hinge on Lei's move to Espanyol. No pressure, Wu.

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