Wu Lei insists joining Espanyol was the right choice
Many eyebrows were raised when China international Wu Lei traded Shanghai SIPG and the Chinese Super League for Spain's La Liga outfit RCD Espanyol in January.
In an exclusive interview with Xinhua, the striker said that he had received other offers to play in Europe, but accepted Espanyol's because he was impressed by the way the club worked. Wu said that Espanyol had compiled three years' worth of reports and technical analysis, and this persuaded him to make the move.
Although many were taken by surprise by his arrival in Spain, Wu is convinced he made the right choice.
The Barcelona-based club previously had two Japanese players on its books, but neither Akinori Nishizawa nor Shunsuke Nakamura adapted well to life in La Liga during their brief spells at the club.
Wu admitted to having doubts over how the fans would accept him, given that no Chinese footballer has previously been successful in Spain, but he quickly won over both teammates and fans with his work ethic.
"I am happy that the fans like me and the rest of the team has helped me to adapt and their friendship has helped me quickly fit in," Wu noted.
Wu's arrival has raised Espanyol's international profile, and it is now common to see several Chinese journalists in the stadium's press box. The player knows that every move he makes is watched closely in his homeland as well as in Spain.
"I'm not going to say there is no pressure, but I understand the desire of Chinese fans, as there is only one Chinese player in the top-five leagues in Europe — and that's me," said the striker who is used to close scrutiny, having played in the CSL and for the national team.
"I am very grateful to the fans in China because they watch games I play in at 2 or 3 in the morning, so they are making a big effort, and I also find it wonderful that a lot of people have bought the shirt with my name and number on it. It's the best thing I've seen since winning titles in China, so I want to do my best in La Liga for the fans," he commented.
Wu made an immediate impact at Espanyol and has so far scored three goals in La Liga, as well as providing assists and forcing a key penalty in a relegation duel against Rayo Vallecano last season.
The striker is now a regular starter for the club, although Wu believes he still needs more time to adapt to the high pace of the game in Spain.
"I have learned a lot, not just in terms of technique and strategy, but about the overall administration of football and its cultural aspects. One day when I am not playing football, I hope to move into coaching or the administrative side of the game," he suggested.
The forward also believes more Chinese players should follow his example and move abroad in order to improve their game.
Wu said the benefits of playing overseas had been shown by players from Japan and South Korea.
"They have a lot of players in Europe and even though some of them are playing in smaller leagues or not getting regular games, a lot of them are playing well," he explained.
It was a busy summer for Espanyol, with former coach Rubi leaving to join Real Betis after guiding the club to a seventh-place finish last season. Former B-team coach David Gallego was promoted in his place.
Meanwhile, key players such as Mario Hermoso and Borja Iglesias have also moved on, meaning the club started the new campaign with a clean slate and new ideas.
"I speak a lot with the new coach in training, he knows what I can do and he has brought in new tactics which I am working to take on board," Wu revealed.
The new season has begun with Espanyol assuring itself of a place in the group stage of the Europa League — but three La Liga matches have brought no goals and just one point, with flat displays on the back of matches in Europe.
"That will be a new challenge for us. We will have to play twice a week from September to December and that is an intense calendar that I have never experienced before, but fortunately we have enough players for the coach to be able to rotate the squad," Wu said.
As well as mixing domestic and European competition, Wu also has to face some long flights to and from China as he returns to the national team, but he says that is not a problem — just the opposite.
"It's an honor and my obligation to play for China in those games," he said, adding that he is optimistic that China can qualify for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar.