Nearly As Many People As There Are In Spain Watched An Espanyol Sub’s 12-Minute Cameo Sunday — Who Is Wu Lei?
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For those who follow the Chinese Super League, this will come as little surprise. The rest of the footballing world, however, will be wondering who is Wu Lei after 40 million fans tuned in to watch his LaLiga debut with Espanyol on Sunday.
Wu Lei has long been one of the best players in China. While the league has welcomed an influx of South American and European talents (most recently Marouane Fellaini), there are limits to how many foreigners are allowed on the pitch at any given moment.
For this reason, Wu Lei is perhaps one of the most valuable commodities in Chinese soccer. He’s the league’s all-time leading goal scorer, netting 169 goals for reigning champion Shanghai SIPG. And yes, that’s the club featuring Brazilians Hulk, Oscar and Elkeson, all of whom are overshadowed by Wu, the 2018 Golden Boot winner. (Elkeson won two Golden Boots in 2013-14, but that was before he joined Shanghai SIPG.)
Wu Lei made his debut with the club at the age of 14, the youngest ever professional Chinese footballer — he’s essentially the Freddy Adu of China, only he actually lived up to his potential. He made a record 344 appearances for the club.
But at 27, Wu Lei was looking for a new challenge, and he was sold to Espanyol for the modest sum of $2.25 million. In comparison, Shanghai SIPG paid $67.2 million to pry Oscar from Chelsea in 2016. The record fee by a Chinese club for a Chinese player was the $22.75 million Hebei China Fortune reportedly paid Beijing Sinobo Guoan for Chengdong Zhang in 2017.
So Espanyol, with the help of Chinese owner Chen Yansheng, may have gotten the steal of the January transfer window, if Wu can acclimate to the different style of play and culture in Spain.
Wu Lei, having played in China all his life — not to mention scoring 15 goals in 63 international appearances, including two at last month's Asian Cup — has built up quite the following in his home country. So when he made his debut with Espanyol against Villarreal, the country was watching.
Wu put in a decent performance in his first match in Spain, coming on with his team trailing and helping Espanyol secure a 2-2 draw.
And 40 million of his countrymen were watching back home, according to reports. Spain as a country has a population of about 46.3 million.
If this was in America, it would have been the third-most-watched TV event of 2019.
The only events that will compare all year are the 46.8 million watched Donald Trump give his State of the Union address on Tuesday. About 98 million watched the Super Bowl and gawked at Adam Levine’s nipples on Sunday.
The only events besides State of the Union addresses and Super Bowls that garner more than 40 million viewers in the States these days are moon landings, M*A*S*H finales, presidential resignations and the start of war. We can’t predict if we’ll get either of the latter two in 2019, but we’re sure as hell not landing on the moon again anytime soon and no one actually watches Game of Thrones on TV anymore, we just steal our friends’ HBO Go passwords.
Of course, this is China, which has more than four times as many people. It’s the equivalent of one million Americans tuning in to watch Christian Pulisic come off the bench for Borussia Dortmund. The highest-viewed match in the U.S. in January was Chelsea-Arsenal, for which 1.3 million viewers tuned in. The most-watched USMNT match in 2018 was 827,000 for a friendly against Mexico.
Any way you look at it, 40 million people tuning in to see a striker come off the bench is a huge number. Espanyol certainly made a splash in China by signing Wu Lei.
We can’t wait to see what happens when (if?) Wu Lei actually gets some decent playing time.