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Wu Lei staying positive despite Spain pain

By SHI FUTIAN | China Daily | Updated: 2021-01-13 08:56
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Wu Lei attempts to round Castellon goalkeeper Alvaro Campos during Monday's 2-0 victory for Espanyol. Having started just nine matches in Spain this season, China international Wu was again limited to a late appearance off the bench in the game. XINHUA

His team's fortunes may be on the up again, however the same can't be said for Chinese striker Wu Lei's career.

In a season where the 29-year-old was expected to be thriving in Spain's second division, Wu has found himself consigned to a bit-part role for table-topping Espanyol, which is attempting to return to La Liga following relegation last year.

A rare start in a 2-0 Copa Del Rey victory over Burgos last week yielded Wu's third goal in all competitions this term. However, on Monday, the former Shanghai SIPG striker was back to bench-warming duties. Wu's 74th-minute appearance as a substitute in a 2-0 league triumph over Castellon was typical of his frustrating campaign, during which he has started just nine of his team's 19 matches.

Player valuation site transfermarkt.com currently prices Wu at 4 million euros ($4.8 million), less than half of the 10-million-euro tag he commanded in the summer of 2019.

However, as fans have come to expect from Wu, the forward is maintaining a positive outlook amid his struggles.

"We all know what we have been through in 2020. Maybe eating grapes won't change too much, but all of us still are very hopeful for the coming new year," Wu wrote on his personal blog last week, referring to the Spanish tradition of eating 12"lucky" grapes when the clock strikes midnight on New Year's Eve.

"I always remember a special photo that I took years before here in Spain," he continued. "I keep recalling the day when Yan Junling, Wang Shenchao, Cai Huikang, Lyu Wenjun and I jumped on the beach. We at that time had all the dreams for the future and we were fearless. Five years after that moment, we won our first Chinese Super League title (with SIPG).

"Years ago when I traveled to Europe to experience European soccer, my coach always said that we should learn from the West... At that time I could not believe that years later I would be a member of a European team. To think back all those years, it's really not easy.

"We are still running on the track to chase our dreams. And we are still the young boys as before."

Wu made global headlines in January 2019 when his arrival at then top-flight Espanyol saw him become the sole China international in any of Europe's major leagues.

He quickly disproved the theory that the transfer was mostly a marketing decision, becoming the first Chinese player to score in La Liga and helping Espanyol to rise from relegation trouble to a seventh-place finish and Europa League qualification.

Wu contributed eight goals in all competitions in the 2019-20 season, but the team struggled badly during that pandemic-interrupted campaign, with a revolving door of head coaches failing to avert relegation to the second tier. To compound matters, Wu and his wife had to fight off COVID-19 after both tested positive for the virus in March.

Many Chinese fans hoped Wu might look to continue his career elsewhere in Europe, with a number of clubs, including English Premier League outfit Wolverhampton Wanderers, reportedly interested in his signature.

Wu, though, opted to sign a new long-term contract with Espanyol until June 2024, vowing to help the Barcelona-based club return to La Liga.

"The year of 2020 was too special for everyone. I had many great memories, but also I experienced many difficult times in my life," said Wu in a new-year video message.

"In early 2020, I made many breakthroughs in my career, but I also tasted the disappointment of my club's relegation.

"The COVID-19 pandemic, however, gave me more time to think about my life. It actually helped me understand that I should work harder for my dreams. I believe we can defeat all obstacles ahead through hard work, united efforts and firm belief. I believe the pandemic will eventually end, and we will have our victories. The wound will be healed and families will reunite.

"Thanks to everyone who fought in 2020. It was not a perfect year, but we have a lot more to expect in the future. I hope for a quick end to the pandemic and for Espanyol's promotion to La Liga."

Despite his slump, Wu remains an icon of the Chinese game, with the country's soccer authorities now on a mission to unearth more homegrown talents of a similar standard.

Former Manchester City star Sun Jihai reckons Wu's feats in Europe offer hope to Team China as it continues its quest to qualify for its first World Cup finals since 2002.

"I believe Wu Lei still has big room for improvement. He is currently our only hope. I understand his pressure and loneliness. It's really tough for him now," former China international Sun told media last week.

"For any industry, 10 years is not a long period. We need to be patient. Chinese soccer has been fighting to qualify for the World Cup finals for the last 40 years. If we are moving in the right direction, we can achieve many things in 10 years."

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