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30 Mar, 2019 12:16

Millions of Chinese fans gear up to watch hero Wu Lei take on Barcelona and Messi

Millions of Chinese fans gear up to watch hero Wu Lei take on Barcelona and Messi

The La Liga meeting between Barcelona and Espanyol on Saturday has the added edge of being a Catalan derby, but will be eagerly awaited in China for much more than that as national hero Wu Lei faces Lionel Messi.

Chinese striker Wu, 27, signed for Espanyol in January, having made his mark as a prolific scorer for Shanghai SIPG in his homeland’s Super League, bagging 151 goals in 296 games.

An estimated 40 million people were watching in China when Wu made his Espanyol bow against Villarreal in February, and his arrival has attracted an army of new fans for the unglamorous club lodged toward the lower end of the La Liga table.

Also on rt.com 'China's Maradona': 40mn people watch Wu Lei make debut for Spanish team Espanyol

Wu became the first ever Chinese scorer in La Liga when he netted in a 3-1 win against Real Valladolid earlier in March, and has established himself as a regular starter on the left wing in Rubi’s team.

But while he has proved an accomplished, hard-working addition to a team that have dragged themselves out of a relegation fight since his arrival, it is hard to ignore the staggering commercial potential that Wu’s arrival in Spain holds, given China’s increasingly fervent interest in football.   


That will be ramped up a notch on Saturday at the Nou Camp, when the man dubbed ‘The Chinese Maradona’ by one of his early coaches faces the man who gave his own moniker to emerging footballers all over the world – Barcelona skipper Lionel Messi.

The game kicks off at 23:15 in China, and tens of millions are expected to tune in to see how their country’s golden boy fares against arguably the greatest ever to play the game.  

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And while it will be difficult for Wu and Espanyol to match Messi and table-toppers Barca, the Chinese forward will undoubtedly be the most scrutinized player on the pitch back in his homeland, where he is said to have 50 journalists following his every move in Spain.

Indeed, such is Wu's popularity that his first – and so far only – Espanyol strike had a social media impact in China 14 times higher than a typical Messi goal.   


It is hard to make parallels between Messi and Wu on the pitch – or between Messi and anyone, for that matter – but the pair do have similarities as symbols of their respective countries’ footballing aspirations.

Messi has spoken only this week about the pressure and frequent resentment he has felt in Argentina for failing to win honors with the national team.

READ MORE: ‘Why does he have to carry these bums?’ Messi endures more misery on Argentina return

Expectations are lower for Wu, who has 63 caps and 15 goals at international level, but he still carries the pressure of being his nation’s talisman in a sport that is gaining increasingly more fervent and ambitious support among China’s 1.4 billion population.


In that context, Saturday night at the Nou Camp goes far beyond the average La Liga clash, or even the average Catalan derby.

There is an added dimension – a commercial and sporting one – and if Wu scores, or even just helps Espanyol to a shock win, expect a fever-pitch reaction in China.