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Editor's Column

What Wu Lei’s Espanyol move tells us about the state of Chinese Football

Cameron Wilson, WEF founding editor , is back to ponder the latest goings-on in his irregular column.

Finally, Wu Lei has made the leap and is now playing for Espanyol – just as I predicted. Forgive me for bragging, but there’s a lot of less than ideal things written about Chinese Football these days, so WEF has to work to rise above it.

So if you’ll indulge me further, what can be said about this move which hasn’t already been, now that it’s a good few weeks old? Quite a lot it seems. Firstly, the obvious.

Some of the reaction to his initial performances have been a little hysterical. “Wu Lei outstanding in first few Espanyol games” beamed Football newspaper. Yet, at that point Wu had played just 77 minutes in two substitute appearances. Whilst he went on to start his third match, by all accounts he struggled to make an impact.

Now, I would absolutely love to see Wu Lei make it in La Liga. He is without a doubt one of the best players China has produced and he has earned his move there with a phenomenal scoring record in recent years. There can be no doubt Wu’s move is about football more than other factors. I mean, what more could he have done to merit a chance aboard? He scored 27 CSL goals in 29 games. This is all so positive.

I also have to admit I felt encouraged by his first performances. But… reality check here. If he were not Chinese I’m not sure anyone would have been particularly impressed. He did reasonably well and even won a penalty. That’s it.

The general reaction to his first couple of games told us two things – how quick Chinese football media are lavish big praise on him, and also how Chinese football has sunk to such a low level that a player simply getting a game in La Liga and not looking out of place is considered such a notable success. After all, what he did was perform to the minimum that is expected for any new signing of any new nationality for any club.

Media and fan reaction to Wu’s debut shows how young players in China are generally over-rated in terms of their potential. In recent years, when someone above average comes along then the media and fans get excited. But they inevitably disappoint because they are simply not talented enough. This is not quite so in Wu’s case, there is no doubt he has talent. But the hyperbolic reaction to such a modest and completely routine introduction to life at Espanyol is a good indication of why other players have been hyped up so much over the years.

Looking at Wu’s move from a timing point of view, we see evidence of China’s late maturity of players problem. Wu had the chance to move to Copenhagen back in 2013 when he was 22. But then boss Xu Genbao turned down the move as the club “wasn’t big enough” for his protege. You could take him at his word, but Copenhagen would have been a great place for Wu to start his foreign journey at a mid-sized European club where he would stand a good chance of getting game time.

But Chinese often don’t give the direct reason for turning down an offer. It’s likely Xu simply thought Wu wasn’t ready to go overseas. Indeed, such is the incredible thirst of western clubs and sponsors to penetrate the Chinese football market, Shanghai SIPG would absolutely not have been short of transfer offers for Wu over the last few seasons. A star Chinese player in your side? That’s a tantalising prospect across boardrooms all over Europe. Indeed, there said to be up to 200 young Chinese players playing at 3rd, 4th and even lower tiers in Europe at the moment. Let’s face it, most of these guys won’t be there for football reasons to any large extent, if at all. And certainly none of them have the talent level or profile of Wu Lei.

Anyway, Wu didn’t end up moving until now – aged 27 – the age when many Chinese players only start to become solid first team picks for their teams. Whilst in other countries players also tend to start peaking around this age, usually they will have been first team regulars for years before this. In China this often isn’t quite the case. A cultural bias towards seniority, a belief that younger players need more protection, and even be mollycoddled, prevails. And in general Chinese young people don’t mature as quickly as their western counterparts due to greater parental influence and a slowness to grant kids independence.

All this has been made worse in the last ten years due to the lack of talent coming through allowing older players to hold on to their first team places even when their legs start to go. For evidence of this look no further than China’s recent Asian Cup squad – at an average 29 years old, the most elderly in the tournament. This is a direct result of Chinese footballers’ late maturity problem and was a big part of the reason why China made absolutely no progress in Qatar – as I predicted in a column before the tournament. And don’t forget the CFA had to implement an u23 rule forcing clubs to field more young players.

Of course, although Wu Lei is peaking now, he is actually the exception to many Chinese players since he has been playing professional football regularly since he was 14, with Shanghai East Asia (pre SIPG) in the Chinese third division. Yet despite his long experience, he’s only now been allowed to leave despite many offers. I have been told by more than one person inside SIPG that the timing is down to the General Administration of Sports ordering the club to let Wu Lei go for the good of Chinese football.

Certainly it was not in the club’s interest to let him go. After all, Wu is unlikely to be getting paid more at Espanyol, SIPG did not need the money from a transfer fee, and he is utterly irreplaceable as a Chinese player in a Chinese team that can only field three foreigners at once. That said, few will argue that Wu leaving is not best for the game here.

Wu’s move also showed how much of the Chinese football conversation isn’t about football. A significant amount of commentary was focused on Espanyol’s Chinese ownership, Rastar Group, and what the upside would be for them. Nothing wrong with that as such, but it does illustrate how the business dimension in Chinese football is another thing to consider in an already complicated picture. And as a wider point – much discussion of where Wu Lei was going to go before he signed with Espanyol was along the lines of “which Chinese-owned club is Wu going to.” But the first consideration for Wu is finding a club which will benefit his career as a footballer which will in turn help Chinese football as a whole. Whether the club is Chinese-owned or not is at best irrelevant. At worst it could be a negative if he was signed on the strength of his nationality, or his potential to help the owners score political brownie points back home by helping Chinese football, and not Wu’s considerable talent.

Despite all this, the only real losers in Wu’s transfer are his club SIPG – they are not even trying to replace him because they know they can’t. Indeed SIPG have made no buys so far during this transfer window nor, incidentally, any purchases at all for the last two years.

Ultimately, much as I want Wu to make it, I am not sure he quite has what it takes to be more than a decent La Liga forward. I hope I am wrong. But even if that’s all he can become, it’s still a great achievement considering all the problems with the game here which he has now risen above. And even modest success on the pitch would see Wu Lei reach the biggest achievement of his career – a genuine Chinese hero in Europe inspiring Chinese kids to play football and become the next Wu Lei.

A leading international commentator on Chinese football frequently quoted by the world's top media. Offers piercing and resolutely honest insights into the bustling crossroads where football, society, economics and politics meet in contemporary China. Based in Shanghai since 2005, observer of the Chinese game since 2000.

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