Former China PR coach Xu Genbao has never been one to give compliments easily. He may have nurtured more stars than anyone else for the world's most populous nation across his 44-year managing career, but few of his pupils, even former China captain Fan Zhiyi, have earned more praise than criticism from their strict mentor.
Steely as he is, though, the 69-year-old morphs into a pleasant man full of tributes at the mere mention of a youngster's name. That starlet is Wu Lei, a 21-year-old from Shanghai SIPG, which he owns. "He will be China's Maradona," Xu has reiterated since he signed him as a 13-year-old teenager.
The diminutive attacker has, indeed, never let him down. Wu broke on to the scene in the 2004 AFC U-14 Boys' Festival, scoring six times as China edged both Korea Republic and Japan to reign supreme. Two years later, he became the country's youngest-ever player to feature in a professional match, coming off the bench to play for Shanghai in a second-division game against Lijiang Dongba-at the age of fourteen years and ten months.
More was still to come. He racked up nine goals as China booked a place in the 2010 AFC U-19 Championship finals, while at club level he smashed home 17 times last season to earn his side the promotion to the Chinese Super League. Xu, who had laid the foundation for the golden generation that formed the backbone of China’s 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan™ squad, couldn't help saying: "Wu Lei is my best gift from God."
Measuring up at only 173cm, Wu Lei belongs to the ranks of talented shorties, best represented by the iconic Argentinian to whom Xu has likened him. He made his presence strongly felt in this season's opener against Beijing Guoan in March. Two goals down after 26 minutes, he wriggled through the defence to fire in from an acute angle to reduce the deficit. Although Shanghai lost 4-1, Wu Lei sent a strong warning to future opponents.
"I think I am a player who uses their head," the baby-face striker told FIFA.com, "I not only have hunger but also a good nose for goal so I can usually find chances to score. I like looking for opportunities in front of the goal and beating the defenders with agility and pace to score."
He was again on target in a 3-3 thriller at Dalian Aerbin, before opening the scoring as they saw off 2007 champions Changchun Yatai 2-0 at home on Sunday for their maiden Super League victory. The three-goal tally from four matches leaves him third in the league's scoring-chart – a rare sight for a home-grown marksman, in a competition largely dominated by imported stars.
"After our promotion I set a goal of scoring at least ten goals in my first Super League season," Wu revealed. "The top-flight competition is fierce, with more high-quality players, but equipped with past experiences from both club and country, I will try to maintain my performance level."
His goal-scoring talents have even caught the eye of former Manchester United star Ole Gunnar Solskjaer during this January's Sun Cup Trophy 2013 in Spain. Wu Lei scored twice as his side impressed with wins over the likes of Copenhagen and Tromso of Norway, only to be edged out 3-2 by Solskjaer’s Molde to miss out on the tournament final.
Having seen Wu dazzle the fans with his mazy runs and fine goals, the former attacker even enquired with Chinese journalists about the Shanghai No7's potential cost. "He is a good striker," Solskjaer said. "If he moves to Molde, I think he can improve well enough to play for an English Premiership side in a year."
The anticipated deal failed to pass, though, with Xu insisting no club, except a side like Barcelona, is worth his striking-prodigy. Despite the missed chance, Wu Lei acknowledged it is a dream he has cherished since childhood to move to a top-level European club. “Of course I will say yes, if a good European side comes with an offer,” he said.
With speculation already mounting that he will earn a national team call-up by Jose Antonio Camacho, the softly-spoken player has set his sights high. “I am hoping not only to join this national team, but also to help my country to the World Cup at Russian 2018.”