Axel Witsel becomes China’s latest big-money signing

Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

BEIJING (AP) Belgium midfielder Axel Witsel has become the latest Europe-based player to move to the Chinese Super League.

Zenit St. Petersburg said Wednesday in a statement that the 27-year-old Witsel will join Tianjin Quanjian, a club recently promoted to China’s top league and coached by former Italy captain Fabio Cannavaro.

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Italian media quoted Witsel this week saying that he had turned down a chance to join Juventus after receiving “a crucial offer for my family that I couldn’t turn down” from Tianjin.

The transfer fee was not disclosed (reported at $52 million; nearly $21 million salary).

The cash-rich Super League has spent enormous sums luring stars to China. Recent transfers include Argentine striker Carlos Tevez, who joined Shanghai Shenhua, and Brazilian midfielder Oscar, who signed with crosstown rivals Shanghai SIPG.

Top coaches have also made the switch, with former Manchester City and Real Madrid coach Manual Pellegrini now at Hebei China Fortune and Luiz Felipe Scolari, the former Brazil coach, leading Guangzhou Evergrande. China’s national team recently hired Italian World Cup-winning coach Marcello Lippi to a hefty contract, signaling its desire to become a regional superpower.

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Witsel joined Zenit from Benfica in 2012 and made 180 appearances for the Russian side. The central midfielder also played for Belgium at the European Championship.

Witsel’s transfer is not the first big-money transfer from Zenit to a Chinese club. Zenit sold Brazilian striker Hulk in June to Shanghai SIPG for $58 million, breaking the Asian transfer record.