Wu Lei fast reaching Chinese Super League legend status at Shanghai SIPG
The Chinese Super League is becoming well known around the globe. Although its popularity is gained mainly due to imported talent, China's top division aims to improve homegrown players. A prime example is Shanghai SIPG's Wu Lei.
Given the CSL can't compete against Europe's biggest leagues, most perhaps know little or nothing about Wu Lei. Astonishingly, he began playing professionally at just 14. In 2006, the winger featured in China's third tier. During his rapid rise, he broke the record for the second-youngest player to both score and hit a hat-trick in Chinese league football.
Helping Shanghai SIPG secure two promotions in 2007 and 2012, Wu Lei now stars in China's elite division. Since 2013, he has managed at least ten goals a season. As well as finding the net 12 times in only 11 games this campaign, he's won the domestic Golden Boot five years running. His performance ensured a place in the CSL Team of the Year on the last four consecutive occasions.
Wu Lei has bagged 154 goals in 324 competitive appearances throughout his Shanghai career. He's just two strikes away from breaking the all-time CSL scoring record. Han Peng's tally will almost certainly be surpassed during this season. Wu could eclipse the former Shandong Luneng forward with around 90 fewer games played.
The CSL is currently on a two-month break due to the World Cup. Although China failed to qualify for Russia, the country's FA decided to put its league on hold. The competition would have been completely overshadowed by the biggest event on the football calendar. The 2014 World Cup in Brazil attracted 3.2 billion viewers. That's nearly half the earth's population.
Asking whether SIPG will be pleased or unsatisfied with the CSL's prolonged break doesn't have a definitive answer. After achieving two runner-up places since 2015, the team are pushing for the title this season. From the 11 games played, they have won seven, drawn and lost two. Shanghai sit in first place on goal difference, despite winning just once in the last five matches. They produced a victory in their most-recent game against Jiangsu Suning, a side sitting fourth. Vitor Pereira's men are also the division's top scorers with 27 goals while possessing the second-best defence, conceding only 10 times.
Pereira has embraced Wu Lei's impact. It's helped the Portuguese boss build on his impressive record at SIPG. After arriving in December, he has a 71% win rate.
With Wu three goals clear atop this season's CSL scoring chart, he is well on the way to adding another Golden Boot. There are 19 games left to play, though. He will be more focused on earning his first title with Shanghai.
What happens over the next five months is crucial for Wu. Will he feel fulfilled after breaking Peng's goal record? Will he fire Shanghai to the CSL title? If so, perhaps he'll consider a new challenge outside China? The MLS is an inviting prospect. Perhaps Europe, too.
Once the CSL season concludes, Wu Lei will be hailed as a Shanghai SIPG legend. He's a true icon in Chinese football. Some even nickname him 'China's Maradona'.