Team China star says hard work and perseverance the best remedy for his current struggles
When Wu Lei arrived in La Liga two years, warming the bench for Espanyol in Spain’s second division was a scenario that was most definitely not supposed to be in the script.
That, however, is the stark reality facing the Chinese striker. Experience has taught him, though, to take the rough with the smooth-and, above all, never stop believing in himself.
“Criticism is very normal. I was criticized even before I played in a foreign league. So I know I can handle all these pressures,” Wu told iqiyi.com in a recent interview.
“There are fans who like me and there are doubters. I will keep proving myself through better performances on the pitch.”
With just three goals in all competitions this term, Wu has had to get used to playing more of a bit-part role as third-place Espanyol chases promotion back to La Liga at the first attempt.
He has started just 10 of his team’s 21 matches this season, with his 80th-minute appearance as a substitute in Espanyol’s 3-2 defeat to Rayo Vallecano on Jan 31 typical of his disappointing campaign.
In a rare start in a 2-0 Copa Del Rey defeat to Osasuna last month, Wu failed to seize his chance to shine and was benched after 74 minutes.
“Personally speaking, I haven’t been in the best form recently. I haven’t been able to contribute too much for the team when I’ve been on the pitch. But I will keep trying,” Wu wrote in his personal blog last Wednesday.
“In the games when both teams are evenly matched, we cannot relax even one minute. One small mistake will cost us badly. It doesn’t matter if it’s a single game or an entire season, we have to always play with the same spirit. We can’t always win by a big margin. So we need to fight for every point.”
Back in 2019, things were looking a lot rosier for Wu. Having helped Shanghai Port (then known as Shanghai SIPG) win its first Chinese Super League title, Wu joined Espanyol to become the only China international to play in a major European league at the time.
With some skeptics suggesting the transfer was motivated more by Wu’s marketing potential than his ability on the pitch, the forward quickly proved those theories wrong. In his debut Spanish campaign, Wu became the first Chinese player to score in La Liga and helped Espanyol rise from relegation trouble to a seventh-place finish and Europa League qualification.
However, Wu encountered unprecedented challenges in 2020 when he and his wife tested positive for COVID-19 last March. After shaking the virus, the four goals he netted in the remainder of the season were ultimately not enough to save his Barcelona-based team from relegation to the second tier.
Wu admitted that he even thought about quitting Europe during that period.
“The toughest time in 2020 for me was when I tested positive for the virus,” Wu told iqiyi.com.
“I thought a lot during that period. I even considered if I should return to China. The most important thing during that time was the support and love from my family, teammates and friends.
“The competition on the pitch or relegation are things that we can overcome through harder work and more effort.
“But the pandemic is different. It was truly unexpected. Sometimes I felt pretty helpless. So I’m really thankful to all who supported me and encouraged me.
“But 2020 was not just hard for me. It was tough for everyone. Time flies. And our lives have been changed by the pandemic. And soccer is different now too. We miss the cheering sounds of the fans in the stands.”
Among those backing Wu to emerge from his current slump is his former coach at Shanghai Port, Vitor Pereira.
“Wu Lei is a different player because of the winning mentality he has. And that mentality that he brought to the team was very important,” Pereira told Spanish publication Marca in a recent interview.
“I understood Wu’s ambition. And I was proud to help him have a chance to play in Europe. In my position as coach of Shanghai SIPG it was difficult for me, but at the same time I felt I had given him the push to make the leap.”
In the short term, Wu’s goal is clear-helping Espanyol back to the top flight.
“I’ve said since day one that the second division wouldn’t be easy. We prepared as much as possible. But if you take a look at the points of the top three clubs, you’ll see there’s only a small gap,” said Wu.
“And many second-division clubs give 120 percent when they play against us to prove themselves, just like when many La Liga clubs play against big sides like Real Madrid or Barcelona. We need to play well each game. And we believe we will reach our goal.”
On the international stage, Wu’s priority is help his country win a ticket to the 2022 World Cup finals in Qatar, but linking up with the squad over the last year has proved problematic due to the pandemic.
With runaway leader Syria virtually assured of top spot, Team China is targeting a second-place finish in Group A, which would secure a berth in the second phase of Asian zone qualifying. China currently occupies second spot, but only leads the third-place Philippines on goal difference.
Head coach Li Tie and his squad are training in Haikou, Hainan province, ahead of their next qualifier, against the Maldives on March 25, with Wu again absent.
“I haven’t been able to return to China for the training camps over the last year, so I have kept in close contact with coach Li online,” Wu said.
“He has passed his ideas and tactics onto me. It has been a year since he took over the national squad and it’s a pity we can only talk in this way.”