Espanyol striker Wu Lei returns to Shanghai Port after 3-1/2 years in La Liga
China international striker Wu Lei is ending his overseas career and returning to Shanghai Port for the remainder of the 2022 Chinese Super League season.
The 30-year-old is looking for more playing time and, cited the need to take better care of his family as the major reason for deciding to return from Spanish La Liga side Espanyol, which he joined in 2019.
As one of China's top strikers, Wu helped Shanghai Port (then Shanghai SIPG) win the club's maiden CSL title in 2018.
In January 2019, Wu transferred to Espanyol for a reported fee of 2 million euros (US$2.05 million), signing a three-year contract with an option for an additional year. He made his La Liga debut as a substitute on February 3 in a 2-2 draw against Villarreal.
Wu scored 16 goals in 126 appearances for Espanyol. He also became the first Chinese player to score against Barcelona, finding an 88th-minute equalizer for Espanyol on January 4, 2020.
Wu just finished a three-week holiday in Europe with his wife and two children.
"Technically it's my first complete holiday since 2018," the striker noted.
"After the 2018 season, I took part in the Asian Cup and headed to Spain immediately. I had shoulder surgery after the first year in Spain. And then, the (COVID-19) pandemic broke out. So I hardly had a chance to spend some leisure time with my family over the past few years."
Wu said his wife made a lot of personal sacrifices to support his overseas career.
"We encountered some cultural differences after arriving in Spain. There were also a lot of small household works like applying for a new landline, phone cards etc. Language barrier also added to the difficulty."
Wu revealed that he has been reading fans' online comments, including suggestions and advice on his career progression.
"Some suggested that I change clubs when I didn't get much playing time on the pitch. I have my self-estimation and hoped to stay in Europe for as long as possible," he observed. "But if I'm really not giving much help and contribution to a club, it would be meaningless to stay back."
Wu pointed out that he had received offers from other overseas clubs, including other La Liga teams, but was hesitant.
"At my age, with two kids, it really needs courage to start everything all over again in a new country and club. I had a lot of inner struggles about my future last winter… Since I'm already abroad, I wanted to make use of the environment as much as possible. I'm also confident about my ability to play in the top five leagues (in Europe)."
Wu said he had talks with the Espanyol coaching team last winter before deciding to give himself more time with the Barcelona-based club.
"After another half a year, I worked hard, scored a goal, but still, it has not been easy. At my age, I also want to give my family a steady future."
Wu started only four times for Espanyol last season. But he said he has no regrets and is satisfied with his overseas experience.
"I have experienced almost everything with the club – playing in the Europa League, relegation and promotion (Espanyol was delegated to the second-tier league for the 2020-21 season, and came back to La Liga the next year). The fans and club staff have treated me well."
"I have worked with some seven or eight coaches in Spain. Each has his own football theory and strategy. The pace is fast here for all players," he added.
Wu encouraged Chinese footballers to seek overseas playing opportunities for personal development.
"It's not only about playing matches, but also knowing about their football culture, the system and the industry. There are always things to learn."
Wu said he hopes to help Shanghai Port win more titles in the future.
"I have been watching their (Port) games while abroad. I'm feeling relaxed about returning to Shanghai. Now I'm a more mature player and will concentrate more on the games rather than other factors.
"I won't be earning as much as I did in Spain, but that's not the most important factor. After coming back, I want to arouse my teammates' fighting spirit and win another championship for the club."
Due to flight issues and other preparation procedures, Wu is only expected to join his Shanghai Port teammates in September.
The second phase of the 2022 CSL season, starting on Friday, will apply the traditional home-and-away game format. However, due to different pandemic control situation and requirements in different cities, seven out of the 18 CSL teams cannot host games in their home city and stadiums yet, including Shanghai Port and Shanghai Shenhua.
The two Shanghai teams have picked two stadiums in Dalian, northeastern Liaoning Province, to be their temporary home ground. The other five teams – Beijing, Shenzhen, Hebei, Cangzhou and Tianjin – will play their home matches in Haikou, southern Hainan Province.
After the 10 rounds of first-phase games, Shenhua lies fourth with 21 points, while Port is sixth on 16. Wuhan leads the table with 28 points. Shenhua takes on Changchun on Friday, while Port challenges Dalian on Saturday.