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Wu Lei: “China’s Maradona” offers hope for the future

It’s no secret that Chinese football has not developed as hoped over the past decade. Ten years ago the likes of Sun Jihai, Yang Chen, Li Tie and Shao Jiayi were blazing a trail for the country in Europe’s top leagues. That trail, though, has sadly since dried up to the extent that a handful of academy and second division players have become the full extent of China’s representation in Europe.

The 2008 Olympic generation was supposed to provide the next wave of Chinese talent. The likes of Feng Xiaoting, Gao Lin and Hao Junmin, in particular, were supposed to go onto greater things. Feng has since spent time in Korea, and been linked to clubs in the Bundesliga, while coach Marcello Lippi has commented more than once that Gao is good enough for a top European league. Neither, though, have made their way west, and, at 27, time is running out for the pair. Hao, for his part, would spend 18-months with Schalke in 2010, before retreating back to the Super League with Shandong Luneng. None of those to emerge in China since have managed to do any better.

There is talent in China—that goes without saying. A host of players under the age of 24 are currently performing well in the CSL, but not many among them have featured in the national team on a regular basis. It has been a prominent issue of the Jose Camacho reign, and one frequently debated by contributors to this site. On the other hand, 23-year-old Guangzhou Evergrande defender Zhang Linpeng has been a regular in the national side, with very good reason.

Zhang, who was discussed on just last week, is perhaps the most ready of all China’s current crop to make the trip to Europe, and has been a major part of the Evergrande success story. He does, though, now have a rival for the crown of most prominent Chinese talent in the CSL—coming in the form of 21-year-old Shanghai East Asia attacking midfielder Wu Lei.

Both Wu and Zhang are product’s of the Shanghai based Genbao football academy, founded in 2001 by prominent Chinese football manager Xu Genbao. It is also Xu who founded the Shanghai East Asia club in 2005, overseeing their rise through the divisions to reach the Super League for this 2013 campaign—based predominantly upon products of his own academy. It is a remarkable story, with the setup having produced a number of international players at both senior and youth team level. Zhang, like several others from the academy, would eventually depart for 12 million yuan (£1.2 million) in 2011. Wu, though, remains for the time being.

Wu Lei has been a familiar name to followers of Chinese football for a long time. All the way back in 2006, Wu became the youngest ever player to play a professional match in the country, appearing for East Asia at the age of 14 years and 10 months against Lijiang Dongba in the Second Division. However, it would be 2008 before a 16-year-old Wu became a first-team regular (with East Asia now in the First Division), playing 24 matches in his breakthrough season. Indeed, by the time he reached the Super League last December, he had already played over 125 senior league games for the club, scoring on 49 occasions.

A star of the China youth setup since impressing at the 2004 AFC U-14 Boys’ Festival, Wu would make his senior international debut aged 18 at the 2010 East Asian Football Championship. His one appearance against Hong Kong, though, has been his only cap to date. However, an explosive start to the 2013 Super League campaign—in which he has scored five top-flight goals in just seven appearances—should see that tally increase with some haste. To put it into context, just two Chinese players broke into double figures for goals in the 2011 season, while last year Shandong’s Wang Yongpo top-scored with nine goals. Wu’s initial tally this campaign suggests he could easily surpass those rather disappointing totals.

RMB 30 million (£3 million) is the price that Xu is now quoting for his young prodigy, having paid RMB 30 thousand (£3000) to Wu’s family to sign the boy he called “China’s Maradona” back in 2004. Nine years on and Wu has recently been scouted by Barcelona, among others, while also catching the attention of Molde manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer during a pre-season event in Spain. The former Manchester United striker said of Wu: “If he moves to Molde, I think he can improve well enough to play for an English Premiership side in a year.” A deal, though, could not be struck.

The player himself is just focusing on the season ahead, having set himself a target of 10-goals for 2013. He is already halfway there, and with China once more heading to the East Asian Football Championship this summer, Wu will surely be included. Indeed, club coach and former China manager Gao Hongbo has made it clear that he expects to see his young attacking midfielder in Camacho’s next selection, referring to the youngster as “the future of Chinese football”.

Given the determination of European clubs to break into the Chinese market, Wu will no doubt move on to pastures new within the next couple of years. Xu has insisted he will only sell to the best club for his young star’s continued development, and the growing awareness of his ability outside of China suggests he could move directly to Europe from his current base. A stop at Guangzhou Evergrande on the way, though, would be little surprise—with the Cantonese club known to have made offers for his services within the past 12 months, along with rivals R&F.

Wu, himself, suggested last week that Germany may be his eventual destination, whilst in the process of denying knowledge of any bids. He told Sina: “There’s been no developments. I saw reports online, but I don’t know where they’re from…I think the Bundesliga most suits me. There are many Japanese and Koreans playing there, maybe it is more suited to Asian players.” While that may be the case, there are a growing number of observers—Solskjaer included—who believe that Wu has the quality to succeed wherever he so wishes should he put his mind to it.

For Chinese football as a whole, progress in Europe for players like Wu Lei and Zhang Linpeng would be a massive boost to what has become a much beleaguered domestic sport. Xu Genbao and his academy truly deserve a lot of credit for their work, while the CFA owes them a large debt of gratitude.

Based in Guangzhou, Christopher covers Chinese football for a range of media outlets worldwide and is Wild East Football's lead editor for news content.   His work can regularly be seen on ESPN FC, Bleacher Report and Hupu amongst other media outlets, while he has interviewed a number of leading figures in Chinese football.

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