Axel Witsel to stay ‘in world football’ after retirement, his time in China and Erling Haaland ‘wonderful’

“I think at the end of football I will live in Belgium because that’s my country. Liège is my city, it’s where I was born; I have family, friends, so I think this is the place. I’ll come.”

Witsel turns 33 early next year. He aspires to win as many trophies as possible before he retires but in the meantime, he is also pondering his plans to retire.

Along with teammates in the Belgian national team, the midfielder is currently earning a coaching degree – something he wants “to have in my pocket” for the future – and has also expressed an interest in becoming a manager. sporting director of a club.

“Of course, for sure, I will stay in the world of football,” said Witsel.

The immediate future is less certain, with Witsel in the final year of his contract with Dortmund. His current priority is to help the club win their first Bundesliga title since 2012 and end rivals Bayern Munich’s nine-time title streak.

“I don’t know what will happen next,” he said. “For now, I’m more focused on the present, because that’s what’s important. Then we’ll see in the future… I think it’s better to just keep playing game after game.”


Witsel’s versatility means he is a vital cog in a team’s attack and defense, able to take possession as well as he can initiate breakthroughs with key passes. corpse; His most valuable characteristic, he once said, was his ability to block the ball and keep possession.

Before Dortmund, Witsel played for Standard Liège in Belgium, Benfica in Portugal and Zenit Saint Petersburg in Russia, winning 10 domestic titles over a period of 10 years.

From there, he secured a lucrative contract in China with Tianjin Quanjian, which was later renamed Tianjin Tianhai – a move that required him to maintain international stature while playing to a lower standard than he was used to. in Europe.

“When you go to China, you can say, ‘OK, I’ve got the money and I’m comfortable and I don’t have any goals anymore.’ Or you stay healthy [and] you work more after training, so that’s what I did,” Witsel said.

“I don’t have to hide why I’m in China, everyone knows why I’m there. But after that, every training session, I train individually because I want to stay in the national team. , continue to compete, play at [2018] World Cup.

“And I did very well… couldn’t go to a weaker championship to stay in the national team and play a big tournament.”

Brazilian midfielder Oscar has become one of the famous names when moving from Europe to the Chinese Super League when he leaving Chelsea to Shanghai Port, then known as Shanghai SIPG, five years ago, while Witsel’s Belgian teammate Yannick Carrasco returned to Atlético Madrid last year after playing for Dalian Professional.
Axel Witsel spent 18 months in China playing for Tianjin Quanjian, which was later renamed Tianjin Tianhai.
Today, however, the league attracts fewer star players and financially struggling teams. Witsel’s former club, Tianjin Tianhai, declared bankruptcy and ranked in 2020, and earlier this year defending champion Jiangsu FC stopped working just three months after winning the championship.

As for Witsel, he always knew that the future of his club career would be in Europe.

“Lots of players when they get there [China] … I wouldn’t say they’re on vacation, they don’t have any more purpose or goals,” he said.

“I played there for a year and a half. But in my head, I wanted to go back to Europe to play at a high level. So that’s why after the 2018 World Cup, I decided to join Dortmund. “

Advisor at Dortmund

At Dortmund, Witsel is an experienced manager of one of Europe’s most exciting, young teams. Part of the club’s strategy is to develop the best young players in the world before selling them for high transfer prices.

Recent graduates of Dortmund’s talented production line include Manchester United’s Jadon Sancho and Chelsea’s Christian Pulisic, while 19-year-old Giovanni Reyna and 18-year-old Jude Bellingham are both first-team regulars. for Dortmund.

Advanced players had to give instructions and advice.

“We have Marco Reus, Mats Hummels also. We, I don’t like to say the oldest players, but the most experienced players. We are here to help the boys … on the pitch. , off the field,” said Witsel.

He added: “When you’re young, you don’t have to think too much. You just have to play your game, enjoy it. That’s why we play football – because we love the game. play.”

Another young talent in Dortmund’s ranks is the free-scoring striker Erling Haaland, who quickly made his mark in Germany with 50 goals in his first 50 league games.

“I think he can be like (Robert) Lewandowski, (Karim) Benzema, he can be the best striker in the world,” Witsel said of his team-mate.

“Of course, he still has to improve because he’s young, but he’s got a lot of quality. All the time, normally when playing, he scores a lot of goals, so what he does. being now at the age of 21, it’s amazing.

“He always wants to win (and) to improve. I think this is his mentality and you’ll never change Erling – he’s a winner, even in training, and I think. this is one of his strengths for what he’s doing right now.”

Witsel and Haaland (centre) celebrate a goal against Hoffenheim in August.

Dortmund could step up efforts to end Bayern’s reign of dominance in the Bundesliga as the two sides go head-to-head in Saturday’s climactic clash.

Witsel has been central to the club’s domestic campaign, starring in every Bundesliga game this season, as well as being the player with the best pass accuracy in the league.

Overcoming Injury and Illness

His recent form has been attributed to a serious Achilles injury sustained earlier in the year, which required surgery and a five-month break.

“I have two options,” said Witsel, “I just kept my head down and I thought: ‘What am I going to do? How long will it take?’

“Or you just look at it positively and you say, ‘God has kept me for 16 years, that was my first major wound, so I can’t get mad. God has protected me for as long as possible.’ so.”

Witsel had been through the low end of his career before getting injured, notably when he received hate mail and death threats after a tackle that broke Marcin Wasilewski’s leg in 2009. .

But this year’s injury timing also matters.

“At the same time I was traumatized, I had Covid,” says Witsel. “It was a week after the operation so my body was very weak.

“Then my wife, my children, everyone got Covid. My mother got Covid at the same time and was hospitalized for two weeks. It was a bad, difficult time. But I just thought in a positive way and that’s it. is how I recovered.”

Witsel gestures in the stands after Belgium's win over Portugal at Euro 2020.

After returning to Belgium for surgery and rehabilitation, Witsel’s recovery progressed faster than expected.

In January, his father gave him a “zero percent chance” play in the European Championships, but Witsel defied those odds and featured in Belgium’s second game of the tournament against Denmark in June.

Michael Yormark, the president of the sports company Roc Nation, which represents Witsel, called it a “supernatural” recovery, one fueled by “mental toughness, commitment, and commitment.” and dedication.”

For his part, Witsel confessed that he did not expect he would be able to play so often for Dortmund after the injury. “But thanks to God, I feel in good spirits,” he added.

The focus now is on winning silverware.

“When you’re at Dortmund, you want to win trophies and trophies,” said Witsel.

“In the Bundesliga it’s not easy because Bayern are a really tough opponent… but you never know, this season we’ll see. We have a new coach. [Marco Rose] and a new way of playing, and we’ll do everything. “

That holds true for him as a player: whether recovering from a severe injury or navigating his side in midfield, Witsel never shies away from giving his all to football. .


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