One of the biggest storylines in world football this decade has been the massive investments made by Chinese clubs to establish themselves, and the national game as a whole to be recognised on the world stage. Headlined by the likes of Didier Drogba, Nicolas Anelka and Fredi Kanouté in 2012, Chinese Super League clubs have since invested well over a billion pounds in transfer fees alone. This massive change has undoubtedly raised quality of the league, to the extent that the Chinese Super League is now rated by the AFC as the best domestic competition in Asia.
As more and more big names follow the money to China, the world is still waiting for the first true Chinese star to make the opposite move. In an effort to establish the country as a footballing power, there are set to be 50,000 youth academies in China by 2025. This massive investment in youth development, along with strict foreign player rules, shows China is committed to producing talented players and giving them the opportunity to shine.
Still, we may not have to wait much longer for a Chinese footballer to take Europe by storm; Shanghai SIPG forward Wu Lei could be the man to do just that. The likes of Zheng Zhi, Fan Zhiyi, Li Tie and Dong Fangzhuo may be familiar to some of the closer followers of British football and while Sun Jihai made almost 200 appearances for Crystal Palace, Manchester City and Sheffield United in the late 90s and 2000s, Wu Lei would be completely different in terms of reputation and impact. As the Super League’s best Chinese forward, and widely recognised as one of the top players in all of Asia, Lei’s move to Europe would be much more significant than Jihai’s time in England was.
Lei has been the subject of plenty of transfer speculation in recent years, linked with Chelsea and more recently Wolves among other European sides. In the prime of his career at age 26, Wu Lei would be an intriguing signing for an ambitious club. Despite the opportunity to move abroad, Lei has so far remained loyal to the only club he has represented in his career, admitting last year that he had turned down several clubs in the past, stating that his focus is on SIPG and winning titles in China and Asia before considering a move to Europe.
One of China’s great footballing hopes from a young age Lei was recruited to join legendary Chinese manager Xu Genbao’s ambitious youth academy, Genbao Football Base in Shanghai, in 2003. Genbao opened the Academy in 2001 with the goal to “Build a Manchester United of China” and began recruiting the nation’s top youngsters. At this time, Genbao Football Base was only a youth academy without a professional side.
Eventually, as his teams began outperforming the highest youth levels in Chinese football, Genbao decided to make the club professional to give his starlets a chance to continue their development. In 2005, Genbao helped found Shanghai Dongya FC (now Shanghai SIPG) in China League Two, the third tier of Chinese football. Despite having a team comprised almost entirely of players between the ages of 14 and 17, Dongya finished their first season in 7th place.
Wu Lei made his debut for Shanghai Dongya in their first season, becoming the youngest ever player in China’s professional leagues at 14 years and 287 days. Dongya were promoted the following season and finished their maiden campaign in the second tier in fourth place, just three points short of the promotion places. Genbao’s academy graduates were stunning the country, finally earning them the nickname “The Manchester United of China” in reference to Genbao’s vision for the club. By this time Wu Lei had become a regular in a side seemingly destined for incredible success.
Lei also had success internationally for China’s youth teams, with his impressive goal scoring exploits for the U17’s and U20’s leading to a call-up for the full national team for the 2010 East Asian Football Championship under Gao Hongbo. The youngest player at the tournament at just 18, Lei made his international debut in a win over Hong Kong as China went on to win the tournament.
After five seasons in the second tier, SIPG were promoted to the Chinese Super League for the first time in their history in 2012. After scoring 39 league goals in the previous three seasons, expectations were high for Lei in the Super League. Lei, still just 21, hit the ground running scoring in his first ever top-flight match against powerhouse Beijing Guoan. Lei would go on to score 15 league goals, including three hat-tricks, winning the domestic golden boot as the top Chinese goal scorer and becoming a regular in the national team.
Even after the club was bought by the Shanghai International Port Group in 2015 and began to invest more heavily in foreign players and coaches, Lei’s place was never in doubt. Wu Lei has since established himself as one of the elite players in the division and has a strong claim to be the best Chinese footballer of all time. Lei has won the domestic golden boot five times in a row, every season he has played in the top flight, and is currently on place for his sixth as he leads the entire league in goals this season.
As SIPG’s stature as a club has grown and the club has become regulars in the Asian Champions League, Lei’s successes has caught the eye of everyone around Asia leading to a third placed finish in Asian Footballer of the Year voting in 2016 and 2017. Just last weekend in the Shanghai derby against Shenhua, Lei became the Chinese Super League’s all-time top scorer, scoring an impressive volley for his record-breaking 89th goal in the division.
Having accomplished almost all he can on an individual level in China, Wu Lei has maintained that he wants to stay to help SIPG win their first Super League title and win the Asian Champions League. These successes may not be too far away, as two second place and a third place finish in the last three campaigns, as well as deep runs in the Champions League in recent years, show SIPG are growing as a club and may soon be able to make the breakthrough and win the major trophies the club, and Lei, are desperate for.
When the time does arrive for Wu Lei to make the move to Europe, there will surely be a host of clubs interested in the Chinese forward. A hugely talented and intelligent player, Lei is capable of playing on either wing, behind the striker or up front. Lei’s movement and finishing ability make him an immense goal threat from any starting position. You don’t need to watch him play long to understand why he has been labeled “China’s Maradona” since the age of 13, or why SIPG teammate and former Chelsea midfielder Oscar calls him China’s best player. Realistically, in the right team Wu Lei could be a ten goal per season winger in a top five league, somewhat similar in style to the likes of José Callejón or an André Schürrle of a few years ago.
Should a club manage to lure Lei away from the only club he has ever known, they will not only be getting a player who can score goals but also one of the most marketable athletes in the world. Lei, already one of China’s most famous and popular sports stars, would almost certainly take on superstar status in his homeland, a country with over 1.3 billion people in which football is quickly growing in popularity. This would of course be an attractive proposition for a club with ambition to grow their fan base while simultaneously improving their squad.
If China hopes to realize their ambitious plan to win the World Cup in 2050, a trailblazer like Lei could do wonders for the national game in both the short and the long term. While Chinese clubs tend to be very protective of their star players, a transfer that sees Wu Lei land in Europe would have a great impact on the overall state of football in China. If Lei manages to have a successful spell in a top league, the footballing world will be forced take notice and recognise China as a country capable of producing top-level players and help inspire the next generation of talented Chinese footballers.