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FOOTBALL

Wu Lei’s move to Spain’s ‘Liga’ is ‘massive’, says ‘China’s Beckham’

Wu Lei's transfer to La Liga is "massive" for Chinese football, says a former international who made a similar journey 19 years ago and helped convince the forward to take the plunge in Europe.

Wu Lei's move to Spain's 'Liga' is 'massive', says 'China's Beckham'
Espanyol's unveiled its new Chinese forward Wu Lei on January 29, 2019. Photo: AFP

Xie Hui knows what it is like to venture out of the relative obscurity of Chinese football and make a success of it, having scored goals in Germany's second division.

Now 44 and retired from playing, Xie also knows Wu better than most after working with him for the last few years at Chinese Super League champions Shanghai SIPG.


Xie Hui looking on during an AFC Champions League group stage football match last week. 

Wu left SIPG, where Xie is an assistant coach, for Espanyol in January for a reported €2 million ($2.25 million) and made history this month when he became the first Chinese to score in Spain's top league.

Few Chinese have played among Europe's elite, but Xie told AFP that 27-year-old Wu can make as much of an impact — if not more — as Sun Jihai, who was at Premier League Manchester City from 2002-2008.

“I have no doubt that he has the capability to play in a top league, in a decent team,” Xie said of last season's CSL top-scorer.   

“He always had this dream so he would talk to me and say, 'Oh, but what about the language?' But football is a common language.   

“I told him not to worry, the most important is on the pitch and the training ground. They will respect you if you show it on the pitch, it's as simple as that.”

Xie, who once earned comparisons to David Beckham, because he was married to an actress/model, sent Wu a message of congratulations after his landmark goal in Chinese-owned Espanyol's 3-1 win over Real Valladolid.   

Wu's progress is being closely monitored in China and millions back home will watch the broadcast of Espanyol's city derby with Lionel Messi's Barcelona on March 30.

“It's massive, massive, and something we missed for almost the last 15 years,” Xie said of what Wu's move meant for the development of Chinese football.

Need for speed

Like Wu, Xie was a forward, and after starting his career at Shanghai Shenhua, he moved to Alemannia Aachen in Germany's second tier in 2000.   

Xie hit 20 goals in 52 games and attracted the attention of teams in Germany's top flight, before returning to Shenhua in 2002.   

He had two further stints in Germany, before retiring in 2008.   

Xie, who scored nine goals in 22 appearances for China, warned that Wu will need to be patient and “speed up his mindset” in Spain.   

“Pace and physically, he has no problem,” Xie said.   

“But the CSL is much slower, he had much more time, two seconds in front of the goal. But maybe in Spain, you have just one second.”   

Xie, who has worked under the “unique personalities” of Sven-Goran Eriksson, Andre Villas-Boas and now Vitor Pereira at SIPG, is confident Wu will succeed in La Liga.

But he is less optimistic about the immediate future of Chinese football.   

“I do not see that many (like Wu Lei), I would say another one or two, and that's it of that generation,” he warned.   

That dearth of quality hurts the national side, who have qualified for the World Cup only once, in 2002.

So what hopes of reaching Qatar 2022?   

“That will be a miracle, I would not bet over 50 percent,” said Xie.

“From my understanding it will come, but later, at least 10 years from now.

By AFP's Peter Stebbings 

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FOOTBALL

Putellas becomes second Spanish footballer in history to win Ballon d’Or

Alexia Putellas of Barcelona and Spain won the women's Ballon d'Or prize on Monday, becoming only the second Spanish-born footballer in history to be considered the best in the world, and claiming a win for Spain after a 61-year wait.

FC Barcelona's Spanish midfielder Alexia Putellas poses after being awarded thewomen's Ballon d'Or award.
FC Barcelona's Spanish midfielder Alexia Putellas poses after being awarded thewomen's Ballon d'Or award. Photo: FRANCK FIFE / AFP

Putellas is the third winner of the prize, following in the footsteps of Ada Hegerberg, who won the inaugural women’s Ballon d’Or in 2018, and United States World Cup star Megan Rapinoe, winner in 2019.

Putellas captained Barcelona to victory in this year’s Champions League, scoring a penalty in the final as her side hammered Chelsea 4-0 in Gothenburg.

She also won a Spanish league and cup double with Barca, the club she joined as a teenager in 2012, and helped her country qualify for the upcoming Women’s Euro in England.

Her Barcelona and Spain teammate Jennifer Hermoso finished second in the voting, with Sam Kerr of Chelsea and Australia coming in third.

It completes an awards double for Putellas, who in August was named player of the year by European football’s governing body UEFA.

But it’s also a huge win for Spain as it’s the first time in 61 years that a Spanish footballer – male or female – is crowned the world’s best footballer of the year, and only the second time in history a Spaniard wins the Ballon d’Or. 

Former Spanish midfielder Luis Suárez (not the ex Liverpool and Barça player now at Atlético) was the only Spanish-born footballer to win the award in 1960 while at Inter Milan. Argentinian-born Alfredo Di Stefano, the Real Madrid star who took up Spanish citizenship, also won it in 1959.

Who is Alexia Putellas?

Alexia Putellas grew up dreaming of playing for Barcelona and after clinching the treble of league, cup and Champions League last season, her status as a women’s footballing icon was underlined as she claimed the Ballon d’Or on Monday.

Unlike the men’s side, Barca’s women swept the board last term with the 27-year-old, who wears “Alexia” on the back of her shirt, at the forefront, months before Lionel Messi’s emotional departure.

Attacker Putellas, who turns 28 in February, spent her childhood less than an hour’s car journey from the Camp Nou and she made her first trip to the ground from her hometown of Mollet del Valles, for the Barcelona derby on January 6, 2000.

Barcelona's Spanish midfielder Alexia Putellas (R) vies with VfL Wolfsburg's German defender Kathrin Hendrich
Putellas plays as a striker for Barça and Spain. GABRIEL BOUYS / POOL / AFP

Exactly 21 years later she became the first woman in the modern era to score in the stadium, against Espanyol. Her name was engraved in the club’s history from that day forward, but her story started much earlier.

She started playing the sport in school, against boys.

“My mum had enough of me coming home with bruises on my legs, so she signed me up at a club so that I stopped playing during break-time,” Putellas said last year.

So, with her parent’s insistence, she joined Sabadell before being signed by Barca’s academy.

“That’s where things got serious… But you couldn’t envisage, with all one’s power, to make a living from football,” she said.

After less than a year with “her” outfit, she moved across town to Espanyol and made her first-team debut in 2010 before losing to Barca in the final of the Copa de la Reina.

She then headed south for a season at Valencia-based club Levante before returning “home” in July 2012, signing for Barcelona just two months after her father’s death.

In her first term there she helped Barca win the league and cup double, winning the award for player of the match in the final of the latter competition.

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