Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard announced on Friday he is leaving the club where he has spent his entire career at the end of the season to head abroad, prompting a flood of tributes.
The 34-year-old midfielder has captained the Reds for 12 years and amassed a cabinet of silverware, although the Premier League title has eluded him and he experienced much heartbreak in 14 years playing for England.
Gerrard said leaving was the "toughest decision of my life" but, with his best days now behind him, said he would continue his footballing career outside Britain."I'm going to carry on playing and although I can't confirm at this stage where that will be, I can say it will be somewhere that means I won't be playing for a competing club and will not therefore be lining up against Liverpool - that is something I could never contemplate," Gerrard said.
Speculation had been growing for months that he would leave and Gerrard has already been linked with a move to MLS franchise LA Galaxy, while clubs from the Middle East have also reportedly expressed an interest.The player made clear his desire to return to Anfield in the future, saying: "It is my sincere hope and wish that one day I can return to serve Liverpool again, in whatever capacity best helps the club."
Liverpool owner John W Henry and chairman Tom Werner said there would always be a place for the club for a player whose contribution was "almost beyond measure".
Manager Brendan Rodgers, who joined in 2012, added: "This is an era where the word 'legend' is vastly overused, but in his case it actually doesn't do him justice."
Gerrard's team-mates paid fulsome tribute to the player, with striker Mario Balotelli comparing him to legendary Italian midfielder Andrea Pirlo.
"Vision, technique but he is powerful as well. Stevie can do anything, he's an amazing player. It's going to be very difficult for the team to find another player like him in the future," he said.
Striker Daniel Sturridge added: "Stevie will always be a legend, not just for Liverpool but to England as well."
Former England star Gary Lineker, now a television pundit, said he was "one of the finest players to have graced the Premier League. A top, top player."
'Experience something different'
Gerrard joined Liverpool's academy at the age of eight and has made 695 first-team appearances, scoring 180 goals.
He won the Champions League, two FA Cups, three League Cups and the UEFA Cup among other honours, although he also suffered agonising near-misses, notably never laying his hands on the Premier League trophy.
His performances have been below his previous high standards for much of this season, and the prospect of being a substitute in more matches next season will have affected his decision to quit.
"This has been the toughest decision of my life and one which both me and my family have agonised over for a good deal of time," Gerrard said.
He said he hoped his announcement now would end the distracting speculation about his future, but said he would be committed to the club until his last game.
"Liverpool Football Club has been such a huge part of all our lives for so long and saying goodbye is going to be difficult, but I feel it's something that's in the best interests of all involved, including my family and the club itself," he said.
Gerrard said he wanted to "experience something different in my career and life and I also want to make sure that I have no regrets when my playing career is eventually over".
He thanked Rodgers, the owners, his team-mates and the staff, saying: "I am leaving on great terms. It is a very special place to be part of."