Premier League move for China’s Wu Lei will give Wolves off-field edge but he must prove he’s more than a ‘shirt seller’

He’s the best Chinese player of his generation and if there is an offer on the table, now is the time to take it

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 August, 2018, 11:20am
UPDATED : Sunday, 05 August, 2018, 11:20am

While World Cup flop Neymar and his Paris Saint-Germain teammates have been driving crowds wild in China, one Chinese footballer has gone the other way.

Wang Shuang, who plays in midfield for the women’s national team, has signed for the Paris side’s female equivalent.

“Lady Messi” leaving for Europe is the biggest transfer involving a Chinese player because the men don’t leave the Chinese Super League.

Since its transfer spending put the CSL on the map the only outgoing transfers of note have been Axel Witsel to Borussia Dortmund this week and Paulinho to Barcelona last summer, both big name foreigners.

That could yet change this summer, though. Shanghai SIPG winger Wu Lei has been linked with move to English Premier League new boys Wolverhampton Wanderers and it’s an exciting idea for fans of Chinese football.

It’s unlikely that Wolves fans know much about a player that recently became the Chinese Super League’s all-time leading scorer, but with a week to go before they kick off their return to the top flight will they need to?

Wu is the best Chinese player of his generation, arguably of the last decade. With the exception of Guangzhou Evergrande pair Zhang Linpeng, 30, and Zheng Zhi, 37, he has been the only one linked with a move to a “top league”.

Zhang missed the boat on a big move a couple of years ago. Once linked with Chelsea, circumstances conspired against a move to west London and the defender got his head down and continued to win title after title with Evergrande.

“ZZ”, on the other hand, arrived at Tianhe Stadium in 2010 after his time in British football. He played at Celtic in the Scottish Premier League after starting out at Charlton Athletic in the Premier League and then the Championship.

Zheng was tipped for greatness but never quite hit the heights in Britain and despite being a more talented player than Sun Jihai, Li Tie or Fan Zhiyi, those three footballing forebears were arguably more successful.

Nevertheless he was the last Chinese success story in British football. Memories are perhaps unfairly tarnished by Dong Fangzhuo, the striker who played one game for Manchester United in 2007.

Dong was dismissed as a vehicle for “selling shirts” in China, and his lack of first team football and subsequent return to obscurity did nothing to help that.

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Selling shirts is also the reason some see as motive for signing the SIPG star but Wu is a better player than Dong and much further on in his career.

He is 26 and a proven international who has performed week in, week out for his club for over a decade domestically and in the AFC Champions League. He’s also been nominated for AFC player of the year.

While he is undoubtedly talented, Wu would still be a risk for any overseas side, never mind one in the “best league in the world”.

The question mark surrounds whether he is good enough as East Asian footballers have not fared that well in the Premier League, with some notable exceptions.

Park Ji-sung was an unsung hero at Manchester United – while his fellow players saw the role he played to allow Carlos Tevez, Wayne Rooney and Ronaldo to shine, the fans sang of Korean culinary stereotypes.

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His countryman Son Heung-min has shone at Spurs but it’s no coincidence that like Park before him he did his time on mainland Europe beforehand – him at Bayer Leverkusen and Park at PSV Eindhoven.

The language around East Asian players in the west is always of “hardworking” and “unselfishness”: Son breaks the latter charge but Wu more so.

He’s been the top scoring Chinese player in five of the last six years and leads SIPG all time. How that goal threat would translate to England is intriguing.

He’d be judged on his end product and there’s something of Glenn Hoddle’s criticism of Andy Cole when it comes to Wu in front of goal.

He missed a penalty midweek but he scored last weekend and is leading the golden boot race with 13 at the halfway stage.

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There are reasons for people to believe Wolves want Wu, their Chinese owners Fosun among them, but you have to ask how it would play out were he to sign.

Fosun’s stake in Jorge Mendes’ Gestifute agency means that the Black Country is fast beginning to sound like Braga, such are the number of Portuguese players signing for the club.

Is Wu better than the wingers that they have, because he would need to play to maintain a work permit once obtained?

That’s something he would have to prove and it would be fascinating to see if China’s best player is good enough to cut it in England.

Wu has expressed his desire to play in Europe at some point but wanted to win something with SIPG first. Waiting for the latter means the former might never come so if there is an offer on the table then now is the time to take it.

Windows of opportunity, like transfer windows, don’t stay around forever.

As for Wolves, signing a once in a generation Chinese talent would make them leaders of the Premier League pack, in marketing terms at least.