Wu paving way for new wave

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Espanyol's new Chinese forward Wu Lei holds his new jersey during his official presentation by RCD Espanyol in Barcelona, Catalonia, on Jan 29, 2019. [Photo/Xinhua]

Wu Lei hopes his dream move to La Liga can kickstart a new influx of Chinese players to Europe's top divisions.

The 27-year-old on Monday joined Barcelona-based Espanyol from Shanghai SIPG to become the first Chinese to sign a permanent deal with a Spanish top-flight side and just the second player from China to currently ply his trade in Europe's elite ranks.

Despite Wu's best efforts, China's recent Asian Cup campaign ended in a humbling 3-0 quarterfinal loss to Iran last week.

In contrast, finalists Japan cruised past Iran in their semifinal with a squad boasting plenty of players with European experience, including Hannover's Genki Haraguchi, Werder Bremen's Yuya Osako, Southampton's Maya Yoshida and Getafe's Gaku Shibasaki.

Wu, who scored 27 goals to help SIPG win the Chinese Super League title last season, is encouraging more Chinese players to venture abroad.

"As we can see at the Asian Cup, so many Japanese and South Korean players play in foreign leagues and I think I need to be a role model for younger Chinese players," Wu told China Central Television before leaving Dubai for Barcelona on Monday.

"I sincerely hope more Chinese players will be able to play in foreign leagues, which would benefit China's soccer development.

"I'm so happy to come to play in La Liga, which has been my dream for a long time. I finally achieved it and I have great expectations for the future.

"Now my priority is to adjust myself to the pace of the new league and fit into the team's system to actually play as soon as possible."

Prior to Wu's transfer, Zhang Yuning was China's lone representative in Europe's elite divisions, although the 22-year-old has struggled for minutes at Dutch top-flight side Den Haag on loan from England's West Bromwich Albion.

Zhang Chengdong, currently with Hebei China Fortune, became the first Chinese to play in La Liga in December 2015 when he suited up for Rayo Vallecano on loan from Beijing Guo'an.

However, Wu is the first to sign a permanent La Liga contract and the striker is confident the historic transfer has come at just the right time in his career, having declined the opportunity to move last year.

"I had to help Shanghai SIPG win a CSL title. After I achieved that important goal, it was time for me to step out of the domestic league," he said.

"In terms of my age, I'm in my prime and I'm much more mature than before. I was not that prepared to play in a foreign league years ago. Now, it's a great time.

"Last winter, several foreign clubs contacted me, even including some that were in the UEFA Champions League. But for me, the priority is to guarantee playing time. Also I have to consider the style of a league and if I can fit into a team's system.

"I think Espanyol wants my ability to score and my speed. For the past two months, I've been in the national team to prepare for the Asian Cup and Shanghai SIPG gave me great support and help.

"I hope SIPG can maintain its momentum. One day when I come back to the domestic league, I'll definitely return to SIPG."

SIPG chairman Chen Xuyuan said the club was sad to see Wu go but urged the forward to aim high and look to the example of NBA legend Yao Ming.

"Everyone knows how important Wu Lei is to our team," said Chen.

"However, to level up the strength of Chinese soccer and help Wu Lei's own individual development, we had to make the decision.

"I told Wu Lei to become a great player. After 10 or 20 years, people will still remember him.

"I hope he can learn from Yao Ming. He should not only try his best to produce great performances abroad, he should learn to advance China's soccer development."

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