Wu Lei's move to La Liga could be a sign of things to come for Chinese football

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THE CHINESE SUPER LEAGUE'S PROFILE CONTINUES TO RISE

The rise of the Chinese Super League has been well documented throughout the previous decade. The cash-crazy division, kept afloat by the vast sums of money pumped into clubs by their respective billionaire owners, has seen some of Europe's most elite talent test out their worth in the Far East.

Former Chelsea playmaker Oscar made headlines back in 2017 when he traded life in the Premier League for the Chinese top-flight at just 25 years of age, signing for Shanghai SIPG for a reported £60 million.

Oscar's move saw him link up with Brazil teammate Hulk, who made the switch to China a year previously after leaving Zenit St Petersburg. Together the pair helped Shanghai win their first ever Super League title in 2018, ending Guangzhou's seven-year reign as champions of the Chinese first tier.

Fellow Brazilian national Paulinho also chose to emigrate to Asia in 2015 and it completely transformed his career, after a forgettable period spent playing for Tottenham in the Premier League. The midfielder earned himself a shock big money move to Barcelona in 2017 after impressing in China, before returning to Guangzhou Evergrande last summer for €42 million.

WU LEI IS CHINA'S FINEST PRODUCT

Despite many high-profile stars grabbing the headlines for various teams in the Chinese Super League last season, it was their very own countrymen who won the division's coveted Player of the Year award.

Shanghai SIPG's Wu Lei, who is known to be the best player in the history of Chinese football, finished last season with a hugely impressive 27 goals and eight assists.

The 27-year-old, who scored 151 goals for SIPG between 2006-2018, is the Super League's record goalscorer. He has also made more than 60 appearances for his country despite only being in his late 20's and made his debut for SIPG when he was just 14.

You may not have heard of Lei before now, which is understandable considering he has spent the entirety of his hugely successful career scoring goals for fun in the Far East. But, after he traded in his life in China for a new challenge in La Liga last month, don't be surprised if you start to notice his name being banded about various news outlets in the forthcoming seasons.

Having signed for Espanyol for a reported fee of €2 million at the end of January, Lei becomes the first Chinese footballer currently participating in a top-level European league; the only other player remotely close to achieving a similar feat is Ji Xiaoxuan, who currently turns out for Auxerre of the French second division.

Wu Lei's move could be groundbreaking for Chinese football, dependent on how he adapts to life in La Liga. However, with a goal return as easy on the eye as the 27-year-old's was in China, it's unlikely that he'll take too long to get to grips with the Spanish game, especially considering he is comfortable operating across an entire front three.

Wu Lei
Wu Lei is the Chinese Super League's record goalscorer with 151 goals.

ESPANYOL MOVE COULD PAVE THE WAY FOR OTHERS LOOKING TO FOLLOW SUIT

Son Heung-min's rise to prominence at Tottenham has been well documented in recent seasons - with it has come an overwhelming following from his home nation of South Korea.

The 26-year-old has been one of the Premier League's standout performers this term, with millions of South Korean residents tuning in to track his progress each week when Spurs find themselves in action.

The Tottenham star has single-handedly helped grow football's reputation in South Korea, and should Wu Lei enjoy a successful stint in Spain, that's exactly what he will do for China.

The sport's profile as a whole has risen rapidly throughout the past five years, with an influx of cash bringing with it top quality talent guaranteed to gain interest from the widespread public. And, with a Chinese national going against the grain and testing his ability in one of the world's most competitive leagues, football will continue to blossom and prosper in the Far East.

Over 40 million people tuned into watch Lei's debut for Espanyol a fortnight ago as the club drew 2-2 with Villarreal. To put that into context, just 175,000 people tuned in for the game in Spain, while only 10 million viewed the recent El Clasico between Barcelona and Real Madrid (Marca).

In summary, should Lei's move prove to be a relative success then it's almost certain that we'll see more Chinese nationals competing in the world's best leagues, with some hopefully appearing in the Premier League in the not so distant future.

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