For Wu Lei, 7 October 2001 was a date to remember. On this day, China PR, under Bora Milutinovic, sealed their first and only qualification for the FIFA World Cup™ after defeating Oman 1-0 at home. Then a nine-year-old schoolboy in Nanjing, Wu joined celebrating fans parading in the streets. Now, after 15 years, the scene remains vivid for the Shanghai SIPG forward.
"We were so excited after the victory," the in-form 24-year-old striker told *FIFA.com *in a recent exclusive interview. "Although I was a little boy, I followed the people to the streets and started celebrating. Qualification for the World Cup made us so happy."
Now Team Dragon are once again harbouring hopes of qualification after making it to Asia's last-12 in the race for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia. Spearheading the attacking-line for Gao Hongbo's side is none other than the in-form Wu, who sealed a 2-0 victory against Qatar at home in the closing match as China booked their return to the continent's final qualifying round for the first time since 2001.
For Wu, it is time to make his childhood dream come true. "In this squad, most team-mates experienced celebrating the 2002 qualifying success as little fans like me," he said. "Now we have grown up and the task (of sealing another World Cup qualification) falls on our shoulders. I hope we don't let the chances slip away (in the next stage) this time."
*Fast progress *
Few would quibble with Wu’s status as a genuine national team star considering the hot-shot's eye-catching form. His strike against Qatar marked his seventh goal from 34 international appearances. His club form this season alone makes him stand out among, not only the home-grown peers, but also the imported star-players. He has scored twice and provided a pair of assists in five Chinese Super League games as the ambitious Shanghai SIPG remain in the top-three of the table.
Even more impressive are his performances in the ongoing AFC Champions League, during which he has been on target five times. Most notably, Wu set up the opening two goals and earned a spot-kick from which Dario Conca scored the third, as Shanghai beat Melbourne Victory 3-1 on Tuesday to seal progression with a game to spare. In a sense, the striking prodigy, dubbed as China PR's Maradona by the local media upon his emergence years ago, has truly come of age.
"I think I have become more mature than before and I have scored more goals," continued Wu, whose club tally will reach a century if he scores against Changchun Yatai this Sunday. "My play has improved for both club and country. Of course, the expectations on me are growing. I am aware that I should continue to work hard and maintain my performances level."
Speaking of his development, Wu was quick to pay tribute to Sven-Goran Eriksson, who took over at SIPG two years ago. "Coach Eriksson has been a massive help to me. He has made me realise my potential. For instance, he converted me to a winger, and he let me know how to play well in this position. He saw my potential and he got the best out of me."
*World Cup prospects
*Another man to whom Wu owes thanks is China coach Gao, under whom he broke into the national team. The former Beijing Guoan striker successfully guided China through the second qualifying round after replacing Frenchman Alain Perrin in February. "Coach Gao called me up during his first spell in charge of the national team, Wu said. “Then he went on to coach my club for a year. He is familiar with me and I am happy that he has returned to the national team as head coach. He can show us the way forward, both on and off the pitch. I have a strong feeling that he will mould the squad into a competitive side. Under him, we are confident for the last-twelve campaign."
A series of challenging assignments looms for China as they are pitted against Korea Republic, Iran, Uzbekistan, Qatar and Syria in the next qualifying round. For Wu, self-belief is key if they are to emulate the qualifying success of a decade and half ago. "In this stage each team are strong. We don't have 100 per chances of defeating any opponents. We must do our best and take the games against the rivals," he said.
"Compared to Asia's top teams, we are not good enough in terms of techniques and ability. But everything is possible if we maintain our spirit and form. Just like when we beat Qatar, we are capable of winning if we want to win and if we believe in ourselves.”