Wu Lei — A Cardiotonic for Chinese Football Fans

6 min read 

As a result of smart positioning, Wu Lei scored in the 64th minute of the match, marking his unique contribution to Espanyol’s 3-1 win against Valladolid.

The goal is of momentous significance as Wu Lei is the first Chinese player to score in La Liga. In fact, it has been 3731 days since the last goal was scored by a Chinese footballer in all five major European leagues.

In the whole history of soccer games, Chinese football players have made a total of 24 goals in five major European leagues, with the first 16 made by the legendary striker Yang Chen who played for the German league Frankfurt. Together with fellow headliners Sun Jihai in Manchester City and Zhengzhi in Charlton, Yang Chen’s name has been engraved in the hearts of Chinese football fans.

After Wu’s goal, a fan watching the game on site captured the audience’s reaction to the historical moment, recording how the Espanyols in the RCDE Stadium cheered for the Chinese striker. They changed the lyrics of the song “Olé, Olé, Olé” to “Wu Lei, Wu Lei, Wu Lei”.

That reminds us of the times when fans cheered for Sun Jihai. “Sun, Sun, Sun”, a bit ironic when he’s playing for the “Blue Moon”.

RCD Espanyol is a mid-range team in La Liga, mocked by some as “the invisible team” as it has been living in the shadow of Barcelona FC. It has a much smaller fan base in China compared to Real Madrid and Barcelona. But just overnight, the club climbed to the top in the hearts of Chinese fans. And searches like “What do I need to know to become a fan of RCD Espanyol?” started popping up all over the internet.

Before joining the Spanish league, Wu fought side by side with outstanding Brazilian strikers Oscar and Hulk, whose performances have made somewhat dimmed Wu Lei’s halo in Shanghai SIPG FC. For five consecutive years, Wu was crowned the best striker in the Chinese Super League, and in the 2018 tournament, none of his 27 goals were a penalty kick.

Brought up differently

Both of Wu’s parents are laid-off workers, with his mother’s limited wages supporting the whole family. Xu Genbao, the founder of Shanghai SIPG FC and commonly known as the godfather of youth soccer training in China, discovered Wu’s talent early on and asked his friend, a well-known artist and football lover to finance this promising kid, paying for his school fees and soccer cleats.

In China, most of the kids who started an early soccer career came from humble backgrounds. Most kids have been taught to follow the “right path” — study hard, go to college and get a decent job. In the traditional parenting mentality, only those that are left behind choose to do sports for a living.

In the cold November of 2003, Wu appeared in public for the first time with his coach Genbao. The 12-year-old pre-adolescent boy wore an oversized long coat, and smiled awkwardly as he walked across the winter soccer field. He went with Genbao to a confined training base on a remote island in Shanghai, away from his home in Nanjing.

Wu Lei’s debut in public in 2003 (source: weibo)

16 years later, Wu recalled this moment, before embarking on his journey to Western Europe “Right now, I feel exactly like I did 16 years ago, when I left home for that island, filled with expectations for the future, but even more so with reluctance to leave my hometown.”

The winter soil is bleak and serene, just like the traumatized memories of the 2002 FIFA World Cup for Chinese football fans. China got into the finals of the World Cup for the first time in forever, but ended up with three gut-wrenching defeats.

Growing up in a youth soccer training base, he never received a traditional education. However, he is brave, frank and downright ambitious.

During the spring festival of 2004, Wu got interviewed by CCTV, China’s national TV station. The anchor mentioned he is the youngest, the shortest and the lightest in the training base. “I’m more flexible” Wu explained.

“How much would you expect your transfer fee to be after you become a soccer star?”
“Around 60, or 70 million dollars I guess.”
Back then, Ronaldo’s transfer fee from Internazionale Milano to Real Madrid was 46 million dollars.

In 2006, under the arrangement of Genbao, Wu went to Berlin, Germany as a flag bearer for the 2006 World Cup, becoming a witness to one of the most unforgettable World Cups of our generation. The World Cup of that year was considered legendary as some of the outstanding players like Zidane, Figo, and Beckham made their last performance as national team players.

the 15-year-old Wu Lei at the 2006 World Cup (source: sohu)

“He is the Maradona in China.” Over the years, Genbao has never once lost his high hopes for his favorite kid, and that kid has now grown from a teenager from a modest background to a 27-year old world-class forward. He has indeed won his opportunity overseas, though with a transfer fee much lower (2 million euros, confirmed by a German football transfers website) than his wild childhood dream.

For now, we only have one Wu Lei

He is undoubtedly the best football player in China, in terms of positioning and strategy as well as running speed, though with room for improvement of his shooting skills. However, he is already 27 years old, amid his prime. With the golden years for strikers stretching from 26 to 31, he might not have enough time to perfect his shots. Only time will tell.

His presence works as a cardiotonic for the fans, after years of continuous disappointment, the fans finally found someone to revive their lost hope. RCD Espanyol’s Weibo account garnered nearly 100,000 Chinese fans right after the match, of which most had never watched the league before. Chinese fans love to call him “Wu qiu wang”, literally translating to “Wu soccer king”, the kind of honor used to be exclusive to names like Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Another fact that can’t be ignored is the economic impact brought on by this one person. The market valuation of Rastar Group, the mother company of RCD Espanyol skyrocketed by 40 percent, with an increase of 4 billion yuan.

The effect that Wu Lei has had is also a reflection of the desolated status quo of Chinese football. In England, almost every kid running around the street carries a football, and in French, one can always spot groups of friends playing soccer on the beaches of the Côte d’Azur. Needless to say, in order to rejuvenate Chinese football, we need more than just the media hype of a single “hero” and the blind craze of fanatics. More emphasis on youth soccer training would be a good starting point.

Wu Lei (source: baidu)

Featured photo credit to weibo

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