Back home in Belgium, they call him "la chaloupe" – the lifeboat. His national team coach Roberto Martinez was quick to label his move from Tianjin Quanjian to BVB in the summer of 2018 as the "best transfer of the season" – and went on to specify "Worldwide!" The fact is that Axel Witsel took almost no time at all to settle in Germany, Dortmund and the Bundesliga, and to take on the leadership role that had been earmarked for him in Lucien Favre's young and new-look team.
"It's all happened more quickly and been better than expected. When you arrive at a new club, and when you move from China and a league that is not so demanding in sporting terms, you expect that your integration as a new player will take longer," he said in an interview with members' magazine Borussia in November 2018. As for the comment made by Martinez, Witsel said: "I wasn't very expensive compared with the sums that are paid nowadays. In that sense he was right. I believe that I'm worth more and that I've produced good performances in my first season in Dortmund."
In the 2018/19 campaign, he racked up the most minutes of all the outfield players in the BVB squad: 2,873 over 33 matches to be precise – an average of 87 per 90 across the season. Witsel played the most passes and had a misplaced pass ratio of only six percent. On top of that, he won 60 percent of his challenges. He committed just 26 fouls and was booked on only two occasions. He found the net in all three competitions, scoring six times in total.
With four goals and five assists, he amassed even more scorer points the following season. The almost irreplaceable Belgian averaged 82 touches per game and was the team's beating heart in midfield: his misplaced pass ratio was under five percent – the best in the league!
His roots are in Belgium and Martinique. He has played in Portugal, Russia and China. No wonder that aviation is one of his biggest passions. But since the summer of 2018, the "Marco Polo of Liège" has been closer to home again. Closer than he has been for many, many years. The Alter Markt, the historic centre of Dortmund, is only 185 kilometres from Liège's Place St. Lambert as the crow flies. "Dortmund is wonderful for my family," said the player, who is at the peak of his powers and helped his homeland Belgium to a third-place finish at the 2018 World Cup. Witsel was the best player on the pitch in the outstanding 2-1 quarter-final victory over Brazil, using his superb positioning to keep world-class Brazilian players like Fernandinho, Coutinho and Paulinho in check.
Witsel, who was raised in Vottem near Liège and started out in the CS Visé youth set-up, came through the ranks at Standard Liège. He made his debut in the Jupiler Pro League on 17 September 2006 against Brussels FC. In the 2007/08 season, he became a Belgian champion for the first time, was voted the young player of the year and received the golden shoe for best player in the league.
After a short spell at Benfica (2011 to September 2012), Witsel moved to Zenit St. Petersburg, where he remained until January 2017. Having won two league titles with Liège (2008 and 2009), the Belgian managed to add the 2015 Russian league title to his medal collection. "The first year in Russia was difficult," Witsel confessed. "I would've preferred to stay in Lisbon. Both because of Benfica and the qualty of life in Portugal. I initially had a few difficulties finding my feet in St. Petersburg. The results weren't good in the first year either, but then we won the title and the cup. In the end, I had four and a half good years in a beautiful city." But then, during the 2016/17 season, an offer that was almost too good to turn down came in from China. Witsel duly accepted, even though Juventus had expressed interest.
After the 2018 World Cup, however, both the player and his family (wife Rafaella and children Mai-Li and Evy) were eager to return to Europe. "I dream of becoming a European and world champion with Belgium. I still believe I can play at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. And of course I'd like to win a few trophies with Dortmund too," he said, adding: "I feel at home in Dortmund. The club is a good fit for me. I like the philosophy. We try to build from the back and to play attacking football. I'm not the kind of player who orders others around. But thanks to my experience and my age, I try to radiate authority and to assume responsibility. The fact we have so many young players in the team makes it easier for me to take on this role."
Axel Witsel and Lucien Favre speak French when they are alone, but he mostly talks English with his team-mates. The training language is German, however. "That's good because it forces me to learn the language." It looks as though Axel "Marco Polo" Witsel, or "the lifeboat" to use his real nickname, has now found a place to anchor in Germany. "It feels a little bit like coming home. From being 15,000 kilometres away from my parents to 200 kilometres is a big change. It's not as if I now travel to Liège every day. But the contact has intensified once more. It's simply great that my parents can now see me every weekend – even at away matches." Dortmund is his base, however. "I live only 15 minutes from the training ground. Short distances. Great! And my family is totally happy too. My daughters attend a German/English school. That's ideal."