Image copyright Getty Images Image caption Witsel was The NextGen Series’ top scorer in 2017-18 with 11 goals
By Richard Wilson, Belgium and Belgium midfielder Axel Witsel has retired at the age of 28 after wrapping up a stint in China with Jiangsu Suning.
The former Benfica and Zenit St Petersburg defender scored 11 goals in 29 league games for Jiangsu, helping his side to 11th in the Chinese Super League (CSL).
“How do I feel? Fierce pride,” Witsel tweeted.
“At 28, I’ve achieved my aim of playing professionally for my country. What do I want next? Life in another country, that’s what!
“I wanted to make sure that my children and my future wife will also have the chance to be in football. I want to continue giving back to football. For now, I feel I have to close my career and get my head together.”
Witsel also took the time to thank Jiangsu’s supporters and manager Oliver Bojanov for a “very happy” last season.
The Belgian’s retirement means he can focus solely on his sporting interests.
He has signed for Johannesburg-based SuperSport United in the country’s second tier and will make his debut at the weekend in the Les Princes Populaires’ home match against Lubumbashi.
“The first time I saw Witsel played football was on the table tennis court in a canteen in 2008, at the age of nine,” South African table tennis player Michael Robert, 32, told BBC Sport.
“We had no idea who he was at that point but at the time I was hooked. The next year he went from his school (St Peter’s School) in Florissant, in the capital Brussels, to play at Benfica.
“I think what makes him such a good player is that he works hard in practice every day.”
@ShaTaoFuelle, a regular Twitter user who says he and a group of others met Witsel a year ago, told BBC Sport: “I remember waking up early on Saturday mornings to make the drive from Selest to Recife because the team practices on Saturdays and Sundays.
“Axel and I were very close. He was really a good person. I am surprised because he seems to have left something special behind. If he has, God bless him.
“As we talked, he said he felt no regret about retiring from football. I hope he lives a full life and puts everything he has in order.”
In December 2015, the Nigerian-born Witsel, who has won 38 caps for Belgium, suggested he wanted to test himself on a lower level in Europe.
“By the end of 2016 I was in the Chinese league and in March 2017 we agreed to renew our contract for one year,” Witsel told AsiaFootball.com.
“I feel very proud. I am very happy and very privileged to live and play football.”
In another parting shot to China, Witsel tweeted on Monday: “China is an amazing country and there are so many great people here. Yet they (the Chinese government) don’t encourage football as much as they should.
“It’s very sad to see young players who have the talent, but don’t find any platforms to show their skills. There are lots of reasons for this, but definitely the difficulties you can face in China discourage many from developing their football potential.”