Wu Lei bucks a trend among Europe-based Chinese soccer players
Sports Scene

When Wu Lei scored the goal for his Spanish team Espanyol's 3-1 win over Real Valladolid on Saturday, he brought an end to an agonizing wait of almost ten years for Chinese soccer fans. Precisely, it took 3,731 days for a Chinese player to score in any of the major leagues in Europe.

His goal at the 65th minute not only made him the first soccer player from China to score a goal in Spanish La Liga but also made him the fifth Chinese player to score in a major European league after Yang Cheng, Sun Jihai, Zheng Zhi and Shao Jiayi.

Wu made his third start in a row for his new club and in his fifth appearance as an Espanyol member, he currently remains unbeaten with two wins and three draws in those games.

Arguably the biggest domestic name in the Chinese soccer landscape, the 27-year-old scored 27 goals to help Shanghai SIPG claim the Chinese Super League (CSL) title in the last season as they ended Guangzhou Evergrande's monopoly over the silverware since 2011.

Wu's enviable tally is the most ever for a Chinese player in a single season as he surpassed the 26-goal mark, set by Li Jinyu for Shandong Luneng in 2006.

Wu Lei of RCD Espanyol celebrates after scoring his team's third goal during the La Liga match between RCD Espanyol and Real Valladolid CF in Barcelona, Spain, March 2, 2019. /VCG Photo

Wu Lei of RCD Espanyol celebrates after scoring his team's third goal during the La Liga match between RCD Espanyol and Real Valladolid CF in Barcelona, Spain, March 2, 2019. /VCG Photo

Besides his triumph with SIPG, Wu has also tasted a significant amount of success internationally for China's U-17, U-20 and the senior national team.

He has already made a mark at the AFC Asian Cup, scoring vital goals in China's journey into the quarter-finals.

It's been a long and uphill road for the young striker, who started his career with SIPG in 2006 and at that time, the CSL champions were in China's third tier. When Wu made his debut that year aged just 14, he became the youngest person to play professional soccer in China – a record he still holds to this day.

Wu Lei's emphatic beginning in Spain holds a great significance for Chinese soccer as his predecessors hardly carved a niche for themselves in the highest echelons of European club football.

They hardly found a place in the playing eleven in the past even though a handful of Chinese soccer players did make it to the teams in the world's best leagues.

Earlier, Zhang Chengdong, a former Beijing Guoan winger, was transferred to La Liga side Rayo Vallecano on loan for the 2015-16 season, but despite being the first Chinese soccer player to play in La Liga, Zhang failed to score a single goal for his side after making just four appearances for his side.

Charlton's Zheng Zhi in action during the Coca-Cola Championship match at Molineux Statidum, in Wolverhampton, England, UK, March 14, 2009. /VCG File Photo

Charlton's Zheng Zhi in action during the Coca-Cola Championship match at Molineux Statidum, in Wolverhampton, England, UK, March 14, 2009. /VCG File Photo

Former Chinese captain and Asian Soccer Player of the Year winner, Zheng Zhi, scored 9 goals in his 67 appearances playing for the then English Premier League side Charlton Athletic between 2007 and 2009.

Shao Jiayi, who played ten years both Bundesliga 1 and 2 in Germany, did manage to score 4 goals in his five seasons in the German league. The former Beijing Guoan player had spent 2 seasons with 1860 Munchen and the remaining three with Energie Cottbus in his five years stint in Bundesliga.

Another Chinese soccer player who followed Shao to Bundesliga was Beijing Guoan midfielder Zhang Xizhe, who was signed by German club Wolfsburg for the 2014-2015 season. He, however, failed to make a single appearance before coming back to the Chinese capital.

Manchester City's Sun Jihai celebrates scoring their third goal against Charlton Athletic, March 23, 2005. /VCG File Photo

Manchester City's Sun Jihai celebrates scoring their third goal against Charlton Athletic, March 23, 2005. /VCG File Photo

One of the recent failures in European soccer is striker Zhang Yuning, who had been on the books of English championship club West Bromwich Albion F.C. since joining from Dutch side Vitesse in 2017. He failed to make an appearance for the Baggies after a loan spell at Werder Bremen, where he also didn't find a place in the playing eleven. He was sent on loan to another Dutch side, Den Haag, where the 22-year-old played six times, before making his recent return to China as he has joined Beijing Guoan just a few days ago.

However, Sun Jihai is probably the best example of a Chinese player making his way in Europe. The now-retired Sun was the first East-Asian soccer player to score in the Premier League when he found the net for Manchester City in 2002. He was also the first Chinese soccer player to score in the UEFA Cup. During his six years with the Premier League titans, he scored four times in 135 matches despite playing as a defender. He subsequently had a brief spell with Sheffield United which was followed by his return to China in 2009.