Axel Witsel has had a tough time of it of late. As well as a corona outbreak among his family members that hit his mother especially hard, he also suffered probably the most serious injury that a footballer can: a ruptured Achilles tendon. But he "didn't let his head drop," as the 32-year-old Belgian explained in an interview.
Instead, he used his countryman Christian Benteke, who came back at record speed, as a role model. Witsel wanted to make the EUROs. "Thoughts were developing in my head that I could make it." And he did! In his private life, too, things are back to normal. With mum – and at home, where an extra child's bedroom is required...
The joy that followed the 3-1 victory over Leipzig on 9 January 2021 was certainly low-key. BVB might have inflicted even more misery upon their favourite foe thanks to goals from Erling Haaland (two) and Jadon Sancho. And, four weeks after Edin Terzic's arrival as coach, the signs were looking increasingly positive that his reboot would have the desired effect – and that Dortmund were no longer on such shaky ground. But Axel Witsel's serious injury nipped any hint of euphoria in the bud. The midfielder had ruptured his left Achilles tendon around the half-hour mark – without any opposition involvement. "It sounded like a piece of wood breaking in two," the Belgian later told Ruhr Nachrichten. "I wanted to stand on my feet, but the left foot didn't react; I no longer had contact with my foot. I tried to lift it, but it didn't obey."
Three days after Leipzig, Witsel turned 32. He was not in a celebratory mood, a great sadness instead sweeping through him following his devastating diagnosis. A ruptured Achilles tendon is a horror injury for an athlete. A long rehab followed, a lonely battle with himself. What Witsel didn't know at that point is that his emotions would experience a real rollercoaster over the next few weeks: first depressing concerns in his private life, then an indescribable feeling of happiness prompted by the birth of his third child (3965 grams, 50 centimetres), and finally his sporting comeback in time for the European Championships – a feat bordering on a miracle.
Axel, you became the father to a son in May. How is it going at home with Aydji?
Good, good, he's now four months old.
What does his name mean?
We were looking for a name that ends with "i" and therefore sounds similar to the names of our two daughters. They are called Mai-Li and Evy. That's why we went for Aydji.
Have the two girls developed a bit of an interest in football yet?
(laughs) They prefer to play with dolls. But they're already asking: when can we go to the stadium with you again? They like football, especially Evy who is four years old.
It's been a turbulent time for you. The ruptured Achilles tendon, the corona infections in your family, the birth of your son, your comeback – were the first months of 2021 the most dramatic of your life?
Let's put it this way: they were the hardest months for me. In sporting terms because of my injury. Nobody knew to begin with how much time it would take. And privately, first and foremost because of the corona pandemic. I became ill, my wife and my children too. My wife and my children had no symptoms. My mother fared very badly; she spent two weeks in an intensive care unit at the hospital. But now everything is okay again.
Did there come a moment in spring where it all got too much for you?
I wouldn't say so. There was just a lot of negativity hanging over us. Having a family that sticks together and gives each other strength is a lifeline in such times.
You're Catholic. Did your faith help you at this difficult time?
Only so much: I believe in God. But I don't like to speak about it; that's something very personal.
How much energy was needed to battle all those problems and ultimately overcome them?
I had two options in January: let my head drop due to the injury – and allow it to bring me down. Or to fight against it and thank God. The ruptured Achilles tendon was my first serious injury in almost 16 years of professional football. So there was no reason to complain. I accepted the injury and tried to get healthy again.
What role did the upcoming European Championship – and your dream to still take part in it – play?
I didn't like to think about it too much at the beginning. I had no idea how the rehab was going to go and whether my body would react to it. It was only in March, when at least eight weeks had passed without any complications, that I started to believe that I could still make it to the EUROs. I didn't want to shout about it from the rooftops, but the thoughts started to develop in my head that I could make it.
Experts say that it takes between six and eight months to get back to playing again after a ruptured Achilles tendon. You made your comeback five months and one week later. Were you never worried that you were rushing it?
We had everything under control. The process is quicker for a professional athlete than it would be for you (laughs). There wasn't a huge risk. Especially as I had a shining example from the Belgian national team: Christian Benteke (editor's note: Crystal Palace) came back from a ruptured Achilles tendon in the 2013/2014 season and was playing again after five months and two weeks. That gave me courage. If he could do it, then why could I not do it too?
How many hours each day did you have to put yourself through?
When I was still wearing the boots, two hours. Later, it was two x two hours almost every day. I only took Sundays off.
Why did you complete your rehab in Belgium?
That has nothing to do with the specialists at BVB. But the doctors and physios in Belgium have known me since I was 18. In addition, I felt that it would be better for me mentally not to see my Dortmund team-mates in the gym or on the pitch every day – and to be working away on my own. That would've been difficult...
...because it would've broken your heart?
I met many other sportspersons in rehab. They were all in the same situation: they were fighting to make their comeback. That motivates you every day.
Sebastian Kehl believes that the speed with which Witsel overcame this complicated injury and the steely determination and ambition he showed command great respect. "Axel was enamoured with the thought of playing in the EUROs," said the head of BVB's licensed player division, adding that he "oriented his rehab towards it" after it got off to a good start. At some point in May, Michael Zorc then received a telephone call from Roberto Martinez. Belgium's national team coach let him in on what initially sounded like a daring plan to include Witsel in his EURO squad. "Martinez explained to me how he wanted to proceed with Axel," revealed Zorc. "It all sounded credible and plausible." Most importantly for the BVB sporting director: Martinez promised him he wouldn't take any risks with Witsel. He would be built up gradually – and used in the second game of the tournament at the earliest. When the call came shortly afterwards that the Dortmund player would indeed be called up, a clear message was conveyed: everyone wanted it. Everyone saw it positively. Everyone believed in Witsel.
"The fact Axel actually made the final squad underlines his importance for the national team," said Kehl, who continued. "What national team coach would call up a player who hasn't been able to play for almost half a year? That was a courageous and progressive step." Martinez stuck exactly to the promised timescale and plan at this summer's continental championship: Witsel was used as a substitute in the second match against Denmark (2-1 win) and then made the starting XI for the following fixtures against Finland (2-0 win), Portugal (1-0 win) and Italy (2-1 defeat).
After a three-week holiday, he arrived at the training camp in Bad Ragaz, Switzerland feeling healthy, recovered and raring to go. A grateful Zorc acknowledged the Belgian management's contribution, saying: "Axel returned in a good condition." Shortly after his arrival in Switzerland, Witsel gave an insight into his inner world at a media conference, admitting he felt "like a new player". He added: "It was a long time without the team. I haven't seen most of the lads or the people on the staff for six months. That makes me even happier to be back here now."
You have now made a number of appearances for your club and your national team. How have you coped with that?
No problems so far. I'm feeling very good.
Due to various absences, you had to help out in defence for the Frankfurt, Bayern, Freiburg and Hoffenheim games. Was that with a heavy heart?
(laughs) Everyone knows that it's not my favourite position, I don't need to come out and say it. But it was okay. The coach asked me if I'd ever played in central defence. That was a crafty question: he must have known that I'd filled in once in the Champions League against Bruges. The one and only time before now.
Witsel made the best of Marco Rose's assignment. He's not a central defender by trade – and there were one or two instances where it showed – but his overall tackling is good, his confidence and precision in build-up play have never been in doubt, and if things do get dicey, his experience helps him to find his way out of the situation in a cool and composed manner. Rose praised the "footballing class, calmness and clarity" of his stand-in defender, saying: "He has given us stability." The former slogan of the electrical company AEG ("Gut aus Erfahrung" - Good by experience) is such an amazing fit for the Dortmund player that it could have been invented just for him. Nothing can surprise or shake him on the pitch anymore; even when a storm is brewing, he never panics because he has already experienced every scenario (or most of them, anyway) in his long career – and knows how to answer even the trickiest questions.
Strictly speaking, the frequently drawn comparison with Toni Kroos, the midfield metronome who recently retired from the German national team, is not apt – as the 2014 World Cup winner, who is one year younger, plays in a more advanced role. Nonetheless, there are parallels between the two players' style and demeanour. Like Kroos, Witsel radiates authority, confidence and composure; grand gestures or big words are not part of his repertoire. Witsel has made more than 5,000 passes to his Dortmund team-mates since 2018, with around 95% reaching their destination. Real Madrid's four-time Champions League winner boasts similarly impressive passing stats.
On average, Witsel is involved in 17 challenges per 90 minutes, winning almost 60% of them, and reliably covers between 11 and 12 kilometres per game. Especially in his first year at BVB, the Belgian was the standard-setter in his strategically important role in front of the defence. "He was world class in that position, the best midfielder in the league," lauded sporting director Zorc, adding "that it was clear it would be difficult to keep playing at that level".
Of your playing style, the Funke-Mediengruppe recently wrote: "Witsel works like an air conditioning unit." In other words: you keep your cool, even when it gets heated on the pitch. How do you manage that?
That's part of my personality, both in life and as a footballer. I always try to stay cool and calm. It's a rare occurrence for me to lose my self-control.
There's a lot of jostling for position in Dortmund's central midfield: Mo Dahoud, Jude Bellingham, Gio Reyna, Emre Can, Julian Brandt or Marco Reus at the tip of the diamond. With so much quality, what stands in your favour?
My experience, I would say. Most of the guys with us are very talented, but still very young. I think it's good that there's this competition for places. It pushes us all to give everything in training and in games.
BVB are currently implementing a stylistic turnaround. Rose preaches an aggressive style with a high intensity. Do you like what Rose calls "working man's football"?
Yes, I like it. The coach has very good ideas; he's also changed the system. We're now playing with a diamond in midfield. Rose demands a lot from us. I think that does us good.
Everyone knows your qualities: on-the-ball and passing quality, control, vision. Have you had to change your way of playing under the new coach?
I've had a lot of coaches in my career. And none of them hates me (laughs). I don't find it difficult to adapt my game to another style. If Rose wants to press more, then we shall press more.
And in future you will be playing more risky passes in behind the defence?
That's what the coach wants. Not only from myself, but from everyone. That doesn't mean we'll play every ball forward at any cost. But if space opens up in front of us, then we'll go for it."
Rose's brand of football is different to the one Witsel has to date embodied. Zorc was quick to shut down the lively discussion as to whether Borussia's No. 28 is compatible with this more active and turbulent style of play with the Black & Yellows after the intricate and rather velvet-footed approach under Lucien Favre. "Why not?" he asks, before offering his reasoning right away: "Our game needs a certain maturity and also a calming influence once in a while at the right time." Like Zorc, licensed player division head Kehl will not hear any doubts about Witsel's value and importance – regardless of the system, the formation or the philosophy. Witsel will always have a place in the team, he says: "Because he has skills that are good for a team on and off the pitch." As a controlling No. 6 in front of the defence, he demands the ball even in difficult spells and builds the game from the back. That's his mission. And to liven up the game – as best he can – with urgency and a sense of adventure. Just as his new coach has called for him to do.
You're an asset to BVB not only for your footballing abilities, but for your integrational skills too. Do you feel like a father figure to lads like Jude Bellingham and Gio Reyna, who are 18 years old, and Youssoufa Moukoko, who is 16?
Some players call me "uncle". I am indeed old – or let's put it this way: I'm an experienced player. And I have a good connection with the others such as Jude, who is a really good guy, extremely talented. One day he will be one of the best players in his position. He listens well, I think that's very important. I'm here to help him and the other young players, both on and off the pitch. That also applies to Marco and Mats, who do exactly the same.
Do you see yourself as a leading player?
Sure. But not in the sense that I want to give a speech every day or bang my fist on the table. I can lead better through the way in which I play football.
You weren't in Berlin for the cup final in May. Where did you watch it?
At home in Belgium.
How did you feel?
Happy and sad at the same time. Happy because we won a trophy. Sad because I wasn't there. I also won this title, but without the feeling of happiness that I would have had if I'd been on the pitch.
Does that give you the extra motivation to say: I absolutely still want to win a major title with Borussia Dortmund?
Of course. I would like to experience this exciting feeling of playing in a final or winning a title with BVB.
Borussia Dortmund have big objectives, but always suffer defeats like the one in Freiburg. Do you have an idea of how to put a stop to that soon?
You don't become a champion by beating Bayern Munich two times. You can only achieve something big when you don't get pushed off your path by the so-called smaller clubs. That's exactly what it's going to come down to in the coming weeks and months.
How can you keep the level consistently high – without letting these slip-ups happen?
It starts in training. Rose expects the level of aggression there that he then wants to see on the pitch.
You're now in your fourth season in Dortmund, your contract is up in 2022. Do you have an idea yet what happens next?
Honestly, I don't know. I don't have a plan yet.
What about how long your career has left?
Maybe four years.
Then you'll be 36 years old.
And in football for 20 years.
You have several older team-mates still in the Belgian national team in the form of Thomas Vermaelen (35), Jan Vertonghen and Dries Mertens (both 34). And still there's no end in sight?
I think we will all continue up until the World Cup in Qatar. I want to go there too. And the next European Championship is taking place in Germany... Like a player thinking game by game, I think year to year.
Belgium went into the EUROs at No. 1 in the world ranking list and lost to eventual champions Italy in the quarter-finals. How disappointing was that?
Very disappointing. But Italy were better than us and deserved it. Our generation still has one more chance at a title.
Our generation meaning the golden one?
We players don't say that, ultimately we still haven't won anything yet. That's only a talking point in the public and in the media.
And it's a reference to the quality of the players, if you consider the likes of Eden and Thorgan Hazard, Romelu Lukaku or yourself.
Of course. The quality is there. But I would prefer it if we talked about a Golden Generation once we had won something.
What will happen to Witsel in 2022? That will be decided in Dortmund in due course. "Axel is a model professional," declared sporting director Zorc, adding: "He will always have a value." Head of the licensed player division Kehl cites the high regard in which Witsel is held: "Axel has a lot of respect from everyone, his way makes him incredibly popular."
Author: Thomas Hennecke
Photos: Alexandre Simoes