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Adiós Wu Lei? China’s greatest footballer on verge of leaving SIPG for Spain

Shanghai SIPG

This is your WEF home for all things SIPG. This week, Jeff Beresford-Howe looks at the end of an era in Shanghai.

It’s been a typical off-season in Chinese football: teams dissolved, ownership jailed, all manner of chicanery when it comes to player moves, and of course arbitrary and unexplained rule changes.

But for the most stable club in the CSL, the champions SIPG, a thunderbolt struck on Sunday. Wu Lei, who’s been on the pitch for the Red Eagles for twelve years, the club’s all-time leading goal scorer, the boy who made his debut for SIPG at the age of 14 and as a man became the best player in China, appears to be about to join La Liga side Espanyol. Official confirmation is expected to come very soon, but the story is all over the Chinese sports media.

Chinese-owned, relegation-threatened Espanyol celebrated the news by getting hammered by Real Madrid, their third straight loss, and they won’t get any immediate benefit from signing Wu. He has a badly separated shoulder, sustained against Kyrgzstan in the Asian Cup, which requires medical attention. It’s not known what financial benefit, if any, will accrue to SIPG in this deal.

(Wu, on the other hand, stands to make some coin if China gets serious about intellectual property laws; besides his salary for Espanyol, Wu retained the rights to his image.)

Who will replace Wu?

What we know is that in the sclerotic Chinese domestic transfer market, replacing Wu and his 27 goals last year is impossible. Even if there was a Chinese player good enough to fill his shoes – and there isn’t – it’s unlikely that SIPG could get their mitts on him.

The current cohort of attackers on the SIPG roster includes the Brazilian stars Hulk and Elkeson, only one of whom is likely to play in any particular match because of CSL restrictions on foreigners, and a bunch of unproven Chinese players:

Lye Wenjun, at 29, is Wu’s heir apparent. He was quite effective in part-time duty in 2018, with seven goals, but has never played more than 1500 minutes in a season in six years in Shanghai.

Chen Binbin, at 20, will likely continue to be the beneficiary of the modified U23 rule. (CSL teams still have to start one U23 player, and play at least three, but it’s no longer tied to the number of foreigners who appear in a match.) Chen managed no goals in about 900 minutes in 2018, but he’s fast, the most reminiscent of Wu Lai stylistically on the current SIPG roster, and he did manage five assists.

Hu Jinghang is 21, and has been loaned out to Henan the last two seasons, where he accomplished practically nothing.

Wei Lai, 21, was loaned out to Shanghai Shenxin last year, where he got one goal in 13 matches, that a garbage time strike against Zhejiang Greentown.

Li Shenglong is 26 and has accumulated a grand total of 293 minutes of match time in five years on the SIPG roster. He has two goals in that time, one of them against Shenhua in the 6-1 rout in 2017.

Zhu Zhongrong is 30 and has been loaned out by SIPG each of the last three seasons, the last two to League Two sides. He has managed 20 goals in that period, and it’s at least possible SIPG will want him this year as an experienced back up to Lye Wenjun.

Press reports have linked SIPG with two possible foreign reinforcements. Marko Arnautovic was supposedly going to leave West Ham for SIPG, but that possibility is now dead. Sky Sports is reporting that Dimitri Payet, the 31-year-old Frenchman who is on the Marsailles roster, is drawing some interest from SIPG. Payet has four goals this year in 19 matches and 83 lifetime in the highest-level European leagues.

The news about Wu was likely greeted with grins in Beijing, where Guo’an has been especially active in the new, KHL-inspired market for foreign players applying for Chinese passports, and Guangzhou, where Evergrande, whose aging roster probably wasn’t up to challenging SIPG with Wu still in town, and Fuli, who may now have the league’s best attack (and maybe the worst defense) are waiting.

The Asian Cup and SIPG

SIPG had four players in Abu Dhabi for the Asian Cup in January.

Wu Lei was the heart of the Chinese team in the tournament. He was ineffective against Kyrgzstan and sustained the separated shoulder in that match, photos and x-rays of which horrified fans all over the internet. For whatever reason – CFA pressure? Personal pride and nationalism? Ethically questionable doctors? – Wu chose to continue to play in the tournament with the help of pain-killing injections.

He was stunning against the Philippines, scoring maybe the two best goals of the tournament, but then, after taking the day off against South Korea in a dead rubber group match, played perhaps the worst professional match of his life in the first knockout match against Thailand. He missed chance after chance – easy chances – against the porous Thai defense, and was reduced to sheepish, embarrassed grins by the end.

Odil Akhmedov captained and was the best player on the pitch for the Uzbekistan team which made the quarterfinals, only to go down on penalties to Australia, partly because the Uzbek coach, Argentinian Hector Cuper, inexplicably left Akhmedov off the list of players for the shootout. Akhmedov scored a goal in the group stage against Oman.

Yan Junling was the keeper for all five Chinese matches and was a non-factor. The goals he gave up were not goals he had much of a chance to stop, and his saves mostly didn’t require any of his considerable skills.

Shi Ke, playing an interior defensive role, struggled against South Korea and Iran, the two high quality teams China played in the tournament. He was also one the players named in a WeChat post, supposedly from a Chinese player, which raced around the internet alleging that four Chinese national team members placed bets on Iran prior to the 3-0 victory for the Islamic Republic against the People’s Republic. There has been no official confirmation or denial of the charge.

Highlights of Wu’s incredible performance against the Philippines:

Yet more ticket shenanigans

After SIPG put season tickets on sale in December for ¥700, the club announced a price increase in January, requiring all season ticket holders to send in ¥300 more, in exchange for which they will receive a t-shirt (with a gold star, of course) and a scarf. Irritated fans who declined were refunded their ¥700 and will have to buy individual match tickets, when and if they become available.

Fans had to re-submit all their personal information in order to pay the ¥300, but foreigners faced an obstacle: SIPG didn’t bother to reconfigure the ID number box to accommodate passport numbers.

Foreign fans yet to get their hands on a ticket have until January 31 to join the SIPG bats’ fan club – details here.

What’s next

The Super Cup against Beijing Guo’an is at Suzhou Olympic Sports Center, Saturday night, Feb. 23.

SIPG’s Champion’s League dates for group play have been set. They’ll be at the stadium on March 6 against Kawasaki Frontale, April 23 against Sydney FC and May 21 against either Ulsan Hyundai, Perak (Malaysia) or Kitchee.

A little more than a month ahead of the first match of the CSL season, there is no news on the CSL schedule.

American expat rooting for Shanghai SIPG, because they're the Oakland A's to Shenhua's San Francisco Giants.

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