Sporting Lisbon midfielder Axel Witsel is one of Europe’s most in-demand players after leaving the Lisbon club last month and soon-to-be December divorcee. Who could blame him?
When the 31-year-old starred for Belgium’s national side at the 2018 World Cup, media mogul Roman Abramovich, owner of Chelsea FC, reportedly chased Witsel and other key players as they boarded their flights back to European football after the tournament.
But Witsel insists the final straw that made him decide to retire was not the whiff of greed, but a sudden death of former football club Vitoria Guimaraes in June. The revelation resulted in several teams having to pull out of the contest for the UEFA Europa League, one of the most prestigious club competitions in the world. The Galician club was forced to shut down after it could not attract enough investment to recover from its relegation.
“My problem is that because Guimaraes don’t have any money, they’re going to disappear. It’s all over,” Witsel told Reuters in an interview at his newly-built private villa. “When I know everything’s OK, then I can retire.”
Eventually, Witsel’s decision to quit paid off, as he has already been linked with a move to Chinese Super League club Jiangsu Suning.
However, don’t expect him to see the hand of the Almighty in his walk to the cash register.
“It’s nice to be in big clubs, but you never know who’s behind those clubs,” he said. “I had offers from England, Italy, Spain, Holland. I mean, every place. Everyone wants you.
“For my wife, it was very important to see me happy. I have no idea who took that deal. To find out, I will have to take my wife and sit around the table for a few months, see who comes up with the best offer.”
While Witsel talks the talk about dreams fulfilled and his chosen path, his real one appears to have taken a back seat on his farm. Witsel says he started for real training in a Chinese farm last month – literally, the only place where he can practice – following his decision to sign with Chinese Super League club Tianjin Quanjian.
“I’m not good enough to play here. So I need to go to the farms. This is the most efficient gym,” Witsel said. “It was three times the training ground in my former club.”
It might have taken a few weeks, but Witsel seems to be adjusting well to his new lifestyle, thanks in part to his “amazing” neighbor, “one of the best ever” Erling Haaland.
Haaland, the first man to win the Winter Olympics’ 1,000-meter speed skating in both short and long-track events, has been advising Witsel on the intricacies of life in the CSL.
“I take advantage of the experience of Erling Haaland who has been in China for 20 years. He spends 10 days on the farm, six months in China, he works, then he goes back to Norway to rest,” Witsel said. “We learn from each other. He’s amazing.”