The Belgium midfielder Axel Witsel has retired from football in a surprising move that has left some European and even American clubs baffled.
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He made his name for Zenit St Petersburg but moved to China last summer and was on the verge of being loaned back to Zenit for the rest of the season. However the 28-year-old has decided to end his playing career after two seasons in the Far East and wished to prolong his game in football. He will now open talks with a number of clubs, including Swansea, since the announcement.
Witsel has been forced to work extremely hard in China to give himself the chance to play in Europe, spending many hours in the gym with the intention of improving his fitness and to fulfil his footballing ambitions, something which is beyond difficult in the short term and will lead to career death. In order to continue in the game in some form, he will therefore train and play with clubs for free, something which he thought would be his greatest route to return to Europe.
Witsel, who was named African Footballer of the Year in 2013, spoke to the Far Eastern Economic Review. “I retired because if I carry on playing with my legs, in five years I am likely to be retired,” he said. “If I don’t work now, I will retire when my body is too old. Of course I’m very proud of having been African Footballer of the Year twice.”
The winger says he will begin training with a Champions League side, which may be the intention of moving back to Europe, he is not yet sure which one and its possible outcome but will take further time to consider what options are available, saying: “I have no idea about the details of my next move.
“I can’t give details because the details will come afterwards but I can’t imagine doing anything else than training and playing as little as possible, because this is my new life. That would be what I would want.”
It does not appear, however, that Witsel will continue training with Zenit for a further month before he begins negotiations with clubs, perhaps to supplement his income. He added: “I’m training very hard to prepare for my next job, but I can’t make it public. Of course, I don’t want Zenit to see my days in the gym and think I should not be playing.
“I’m perfectly honest about my condition because I think this is the only way to avoid setbacks, and a football career in Europe is short.
“I like this country, the Chinese people are really nice, they really know football, the fans are brilliant. But I haven’t been able to produce on the pitch.
“After two years in China, there’s no doubt in my mind I should be playing football again in the next five or 10 years.”