“The Chong Ming base (a specialist training camp in Shanghai) cost me over 30 million RMB, but Wu Lei could help me make back all of my investment. He will become China’s Maradona.”
- Xu Gen Bao, former Chinese footballer, coach and football club owner, who met Wu at the age of 12.
Diego Maradona is a big name to live up to, but in the context of Chinese football, perhaps it is appropriate for Wu Lei. It might seem a little simplistic, but using Maradona’s career as a template, we shall see that there are grounds for a comparison to be made.
What we are hoping to see in this short profile, is how accurate Xu’s statement is. He’s a fabulous talent. He’s made his own big-money move to Spain. He even shoulders the responsibility of an ailing national side. However, where do the similarities end and what will the legacy of his move to Espanyol be?
Maradona generally played through the middle, but his sprawling, octopus-like dominance of play meant that the whole pitch was his playground. Trademark runs from deep (look away England ’86 squad) were not uncommon. Wu is a cannonball, regularly let loose at opposition defences. Since his transfer over from Shanghai SIPG in the Chinese Super League, Wu has been mostly played as a left-winger, with occasional cameos in the centre of attack. However, a manager’s team sheet can be deceptive.
Just as Maradona could turn on the ball into every corner of the pitch, Wu is hardly bound to the wing. At his best when playing in the half spaces and off of the defender’s shoulder, he can find himself almost anywhere across the front line. He plays dangerously high, to the point that the line between offside and on is imperceptible. This is his area. But it doesn’t need to be. He can play slightly deeper, as the razor-sharp edge of Espanyol’s triangular arrow point. His pace lets him breeze past defenders when space ahead of him is clear.
A magnificent first touch generally guides him past the opposition defence and his excellent feet allow him to scythe inside and leave defenders facing backwards. His finishing is likewise superb. His finish against Celta Vigo in April was both well-timed and lurched back to generations of famed-acrobatic compatriots. A fantastic run into the half-space saw him meet the well-chipped ball mid-air with a volley before Rubén Blanco could clatter into him.
Understat.com has noted that Wu’s xG per 90 is above average for La Liga, measuring in at 0.38. This equates to an expected goal nearly every three games. In his 16 appearances this season, which included 12 starts, he scored three times and racked up two assists. He has a decent record so far, if he has been a little more profligate that should be expected. This is only the beginning, however. His xG matches Vinícius Júnior’s, and is only just off of Antoine Griezmann’s. No one expected an overnight success story, and he’s handled the jump in competition better than most expected.
An Iberian adventure
This season Wu became the first Chinese goal scorer in La Liga. Indeed, the big-money transfer to Spain also follows the same trajectory of Maradona, as Barcelona broke the bank in 1982. They spent €8 million to bring him from Boca Juniors, a world record fee. It’s remarkable that both have also been drawn to the city of Barcelona, with Wu signing for their city rivals, Espanyol. Wu had been a target for clubs across Europe, but there was always one thing that appeared to link most of them.
Wu himself has been less than coy about expressing details about his potential transfer history. “I receive offers from European clubs all the time, but the timing has not been right,” he claimed in late 2017. “Also, my focus right now is on helping my club to win titles in the domestic league and in the AFC Champions League. Maybe after that, I’ll think about playing in Europe.”
As big Chinese money has poured into domestic European leagues, the signing of “home-grown” talent can surely be seen as advancing the commercial interests that the owners of such football clubs, and the league itself, would like to utilise. In Wu’s first games following his transfer, over 40 million people in China were said to have followed the game. In order to allow such numbers to tune in, Espanyol’s next run of games were even scheduled for earlier kick-offs.
One of the biggest beneficiaries of shrewd Chinese investment in Europe is Wolverhampton Wanderers. Last summer, Wolves were heavily linked with a move for the player, with the South China Morning Post admitting that investment in the club could be a telling reason: “As for Wolves, signing a once in a generation Chinese talent would make them leaders of the Premier League pack, in marketing terms at least.”
A year before the transfer, Barcelona CEO Oscar Grau highlighted how lucrative a Chinese signing could be for the club. “I’m sure the audience will be higher and it will help the sponsor to be closer. We will see,” Grau said. The current President of Barca’s rivals, Chen Yan Sheng, is a Chinese plastics billionaire. It is surely with one eye on potential business prospects, that this transfer has been undertaken.
Whilst Maradona was the personification of the footballing pride, which Jonathan Wilson has attributed as the personification of Argentinian football, Wu is an unusual figure to be the focal point of China’s national team.
For one thing, Wu comes from the Hui ethnic group. China boasts that it is home to 56 different ethnic groups, however, with the Han ethnicity making up over 91% of all Chinese people, society is far from heterogeneous. All the same, there is a desire to generate excitement around their biggest footballing export.
In 2016, China published its plans to make it a world leader in global football by 2050. The cornerstone behind these plans was to grow one football pitch per every 10,000 people, and to get around 50 million people into the game. Unfortunately, a few months after this plan was announced, the national team faced turmoil. They were humbled at home, losing 1-0 to Syria. Cai Zhen Hua, the head of the Chinese FA, faced demands from angry supporters to resign.
As it stands, Chinese football is at a crossroads. A very recent plan to help jump-start China’s development has included the naturalisation of several players in their domestic leagues. Nico Yennaris, who signed for Beijing Guoan from Brentford in January, has made headlines with his recent inclusion into Marcelo Lippi’s national setup. Whilst he is the first to have received a call-up, a long list of domestic players with mixed heritage or long periods of residency are waiting in the wings.
Whilst this strategy could propel Chinese football up the FIFA world rankings, there is an element to this which does feel slightly distasteful. Wu, being Chinese-born, is the sort of personality that China will hope to build their national team around for added credibility.
In this year’s Asian Cup in Qatar, he scored a brace against Sven-Göran Eriksson’s Philippines, as China qualified for the knockout round, before losing 3-0 to Iran in the quarter-finals. Wu played with a shoulder injury, which meant that he was rested against South Korea in the final group game. He left fans sweating, prior to his inclusion against Thailand in the round of 16. He’s scored 15 goals in 63 games for China. At only 27, he still has time to build on this and it could be essential for the good of developing the game, that he does.
The transfer of Wu Lei over to European football is surely seen as a win-win situation for all sides concerned. Wu gets his dream move over to Europe, and Espanyol and La Liga get a star-Chinese player who will add millions of pounds worth of revenue to their coffers. He can also play a bit too. The Chinese Football Association, which aims to be globally competitive in the next 30 years, now have their intercontinental hero who can put them on the map.
Using Maradona as the benchmark for the creeping vine, Wu’s career is useful, even if there are differences. However, in terms of their trajectory, their importance to their own fans and home associations, and their potential to further develop their reputations, there are similarities. To say that he’ll be as successful as the Argentinian would be a bold prediction, but his influence on the Chinese game should not be understated.