A few weeks ago I sat down with Wu Lei at the national team’s hotel in Beijing. The young striker didn’t dominate the room when he entered, in fact few in the lobby paid attention to him, nor did he come across as a football star, instead he was your average 21 year old, shy and not used to all the hype that surronds him. Indeed he was so shy I had to move closer and closer to him throughout the interview to make sure he was heard. His shyness made it difficult getting answers out of him, though he was friendly and would often deflect questions with a laugh. He’s going to need to be more media savvy as his future is going to be full of media interviews, no matter where he ends up.
First off, I’ve seen a post on Sina Weibo that is purported to be the high school entrance exam for your year of the Xu Genbao soccer school students and you were one of the highest, is this true or not?
[Laughing] It’s completely false.
Looking at those who’ve come through Xu’s school recently, like you, Zhang Linpeng, Cao Yunding, etc., you’ve all performed very well in the CSL, what makes his school different from the other footballing schools in China?
Mainly it’s because, regardless if it’s regarding football or daily life, he has a lot of requirements for how we act. Beyond that, a lot of schools are just about making money, Xu’s main goal is building talent.
Do you think his style should be used by other schools?
Of course, the more the better.
Gao Hongbo has arrived at East Asia now, how much impact has he had?
Yes, he’s a very experienced manager and so has a great understand and familiarity with the league. This being our first year in the CSL, we are lacking when it comes to experience, he is a great help with that.
Gao played for the national team, he also managed the national team, this being your first callup in awhile, did he have any advice for you?
Nothing special, just telling me to relax, not be nervous.
Do you think you can do it? It looked like you were a little nervous when you came on against Uzbekistan.
It was okay. It isn’t my first time, the first time was three years ago and at that point I was incredibly nervous. This was a lot better than that time.
East Asia was in the China League, then promoted to the CSL, you’ve also been a part of the national team a few times now, has your mentality changed at all? When were you most nervous?
There were definitely changes, I was definitely most nervous with the national team.
This year in your first CSL match (against Beijing Guoan), you scored, how much did that help you?
Yeah, scoring in my first match definitely helped. If it took me a long time to score, it would make things a lot harder. I broke through in the first match.
You’re top among domestic scorers in the CSL, does that give you greater confidence or greater pressure?
I haven’t thought about it that much. The main thing right now is our team’s success. This is our sides first year in the CSL, it’s a lot harder, the main thing for me is staying up, I haven’t thought too much about other things.
Are you confident East Asia can stay up?
We’ll see how things go over the next few months, right now it’s up in the air.
Through the opening 10 matches East Asia was the best side in Shanghai, leading to a lot of surprise, were you all confident from the start or were you surprised with your own success?
The three sides are pretty equal. Shenhua has a strong heritage and experience in the CSL, with that heritage when they come across difficulties, it brings about a certain spirit. But when it comes to strength I think we’re all about equal so our success isn’t a surprise.
Before the last international break, East Asia took on Shenxin in what was called the “other Shanghai derby”. It was your first time against them, Shenxin doesn’t have a long history in Shanghai and East Asia was just promoted. Do you think this has reached the level of a real derby? Did you think when East Asia took on Shenhua at Hongkou it had that atmosphere?
Against Shenhua it kind of had that feeling, but against Shenxin it didn’t really have it. The environment in China and Europe is different, we can’t compete with them when it comes to derbies.
For your club you tend to play behind a foreign striker, not quite as an attacking midfielder, more like a second striker, what position would you like to play for the national team?
I can play anywhere in the midfield, wherever the manager puts me, I’m fine with.
Right now you’re one of China’s most talented footballers, much of China’s hopes are on your shoulders, do you feel the pressure?
You’ve even been called “China’s Maradona”, it’s a lot of pressure…
When you first got to Xu Genbao’s school, you were one of the smallest players there, but you were able to show your talent…
It’s about ability and that Xu dared to use me. When I was younger I was shorter than most other kids and a lot of coaches didn’t want me.
Do you hope to play in Europe? Do you think you can get there in the next few years?
Yes, definitely in the next year or two.
Where would you like to go in Europe?
Right now I don’t think it matters where I go, just if I get a chance to play. The thing is if you go to a great league, like La Liga or the Bundesliga, and then only sit on the bench, it’s no good. The main thing is going somewhere where I’d get the chance to play.
Have you talked with those in China with experience abroad like Yu Dabao and Hao Junmin?
Yes, the main thing they told me was make sure to go to a team where I could get regular playing time.
Do you think players like you and Zhang Linpeng need to go abroad soon or by staying in China that it will stunt your development due to the lack of professionalism?
Yes, the sooner the better. The environment overseas is much better than China.
You are one of the first new players who could play forward for the national team that we’ve seen in a number of years. From Hao Haidong to Li Jinyu, then for the past few years its just been Gao Lin and Yang Xu, now you’re in the national team setup. Why is it so hard for forwards in China?
It’s down to the league. Pretty much every team uses a foreign striker, so domestic players don’t get a chance to play.