Coach urges nation's best homegrown talents to follow in Wu Lei's footsteps
Despite Wu Lei's current struggles in Spain, former Team China head coach Zhu Guanghu has urged more young Chinese players to try and emulate the Espanyol forward by forging a career in Europe.
"For a very long time, we have believed our players should grow in foreign leagues. We hope to see many promising domestic players step out of our own league," the 71-year-old Zhu told zhibo8.cc on Tuesday.
"There are many players who have the potential, such as (Guangzhou FC striker) Wei Shihao and some young players of Shandong Luneng (now called Shandong Taishan). As long as there are chances, they should ply their trade in foreign leagues."
Prior to Espanyol's relegation from La Liga last season, Wu had been the only China international playing in a major European league following his transfer to the Barcelona-based club from Shanghai SIPG in early 2019.
However, after a debut campaign packed full of standout performances and milestones－including becoming the first Chinese player to score in La Liga－Wu now finds himself struggling for game time and goals in Spain's second tier.
Typical of his frustrating 2020-21 season, Wu was unable to make an impact in a rare start on Sunday against Osasuna and was substituted in the 75th minute of the 2-0 Copa Del Rey defeat.
The 29-year-old has only managed three goals in all competitions this season and started only 10 of Espanyol's 20 games so far.
That has led some voices on social media to question whether Wu would have been better off seeking a move away from Espanyol－either to another European club or a Chinese Super League team.
Throughout his time in Spain, Wu has kept fans informed via a personal blog, with his most recent entries indicating he is determined to ride out the tough times and fight his way back into favor at Espanyol.
"We are still running on the right track chasing our dreams and we are the same young boys as we were," he wrote earlier this month.
Throughout his time in Spain, Wu has maintained that his stint abroad will improve not only his own game but also the fortunes of Team China as it bids to qualify for the 2022 World Cup finals.
The Chinese squad, which is due to face the Maldives in its next 2022 qualifier on March 25, currently sits second in the Asian zone's Group A, ahead of the third-place Philippines on goal difference. Advancing to the second phase as one of the four best second-place finishers is, therefore, far from certain for China.
National team head coach Li Tie last week named a 27-man squad for a training camp in Haikou, Hainan province, starting Friday and continuing until early February. Wu was omitted due to his club commitments in Spain, with the squad mostly made up of players from CSL giants Guangzhou FC and Beijing Guo'an.
Because of the pandemic's disruption to the schedule, the Maldives match will be Li's first game in charge since being appointed in early 2020.
Zhu is confident his former charge has what it takes to reinvigorate China's qualifying campaign.
"I know the personality of Li Tie. He is a man who never gives up. He likes challenges and has very high standards on details," said Zhu. "Both his pre－and post-match analysis is very thorough.
"Most importantly, he has an indomitable spirit. I'm sure he will pass on his ideas, tactics and philosophy of soccer to the players."
China has been bolstered by the introduction of a number of naturalized players, with Brazil-born pair Ai Kesen (aka Elkeson) and Alan featuring in Li's latest training squad.
However, Zhu believes the Chinese Football Association's plans to improve youth training are more important to the nation's soccer future than persuading foreign imports to change nationality and pull on the red jersey.
"We need more pitches in our schools－seven-a-side, five-a-side or even smaller pitches just for three-aside," Zhu added. "Smaller pitches allow more young kids to get access to soccer, and they can improve their touch and pace of play.
"We also need more quality soccer youth training coaches. Meanwhile, we should create more opportunities and different competition formats for the young players. They should learn to compete－particularly how to do so physically－from an early age. Throughout the reforms, our priority has always been to increase kids' participation in the game."