Wu Lei, a Chinese soccer player who plays as a forward for the RCD Espanyol team in La Liga, the men's top professional soccer division of the Spanish football league system.(Photo courtesy of EFE)
Orange County School of the Arts

Opinion: Soccer player Wu Lei’s is one of the smartest signings of the season

Over the past 20 years or so, soccer as a sport has experienced a surge in global popularity. The higher viewership and fan engagement that has come with this has increased the amount of money in the game. Now, teams, owners, and fans are more desperate than ever to win the larger-than-ever monetary prizes allotted to trophies and championships. Now, each and every part of the game is important. It’s no longer enough to have a good team — they also need to have world class diet and fitness levels.

Coaches can’t just focus on one aspect of the game (like attacking or defending), but rather need to be able to mastermind many kinds of tactics in addition to winning the respect of their players. And, most important of all, soccer clubs — at this point functioning as pseudo-businesses — need to rake in as much money as possible. So ticket prices are raised and advertisements are splattered all over uniforms and stadiums. Deals are struck with foreign governments and state owned businesses. It is for this reason that Manchester United have an official tractor partner.

All of this money goes into several things, the most noticeable of which being the acquisition of players. Clubs can spend the money on scouting young talent, paying their players, or on transfers. For the uninformed, in the world of soccer, a transfer is the way players move between teams. While transfers in American sports usually involve trades and draft picks, soccer transfers involve a transfer fee.

This essentially serves to buy out the player’s contract (though it rarely fits the exact value of that). It is a payment made to the club that owns the player, in order to sign him. Clubs that have more money are the ones that usually win transfer wars. Simply put, the more money you spend, the better players you are able to get. This is yet another motivator for teams to get more money.

The problem with this is that only a very few, super-rich teams have the amount of money needed to splash on quality players. While skill in the transfer market is important for all teams, it has special value for smaller ones. They need to be able to identify players that are good and can be bought for lower costs. While a large club can make more than three signings in a single transfer window, smaller ones often only make one, and rely on their youth teams to supply them with players. So it is more important than ever for these teams to get their transfers right.

One of these smaller teams is RCD Espanyol. They are a team based in Barcelona, play in the top flight of the Spanish Division, in a stadium that seats 45,000 (about as much as a baseball team’s).

This January, the Espanyol team made one of the smartest signings of the season, when they bought Wu Lei, the best player in the Chinese Super League, for only two million Euros. Lei was a great player in China — in his last four seasons there, he had more than 20 combined goals and assists each year. But China is not Europe, and not the Spanish top flight — Espanyol must have known this when signing him. Since his transfer, Lei has scored just once in 11 matches. But he has made a greater impact than many other players have this season.

According to Espanyol, Lei’s official presentation as an Espanyol player (basically the fans’ first look at a new signing) reached 350 million people in China. His debut match (in which he played a meager 12 minutes) was watched by 40 million Chinese. In contrast, of Espanyol’s Spanish fanbase, only 177,000 watched the match. And Espanyol’s previous 17 matches had been watched by just seven million people, according to Sky Sports.

Lei may never turn out to be an amazing player. But he has already helped Espanyol out in one important way — growing it’s fanbase. Soccer’s popularity has been exploding in China recently, in tandem with Premier Xi Jinping’s bid to turn the country into a soccer powerhouse, according to the New York Times. The signing of Lei will boost the revenue (through shirt, ticket, and branding sales) of Espanyol, as well as its global recognition. The club, like other small ones in it’s predicament, hopes that this money will be enough to keep it chugging along to success. Perhaps one day it will beat the odds and break out of the “small team” club, and maybe get a tractor partner. If it does, it will have Lei to thank.