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His distinctive hairstyle makes him stand out, but what’s more important for Borussia Dortmund is the head underneath it. The club’s management singled out Axel Witsel as their preferred choice for the midfield anchor role. The Belgian, who won a third-place medal at the last World Cup, comes equipped with the experience of over 100 international caps and over 40 UEFA Champions League appearances. The curly-haired number 28 is ready to be the leader of his new team.
There was one reason in particular why Michael Zorc sought to acquire the well-travelled midfielder from Chinese first-tier side Tianjin Quanjian: ‘‘We had too few leaders out on the pitch, the kind of players who say: ‘get it together boys or we’re not going to get the result we’re looking for today.’ That’s what I expect from Axel,’’ said the club’s Sporting Director in reference to the midfield general, who he also described as: ‘‘A complete player, with immense international experience, who has all the qualities required to dominate at the heart of our midfield: tactical awareness, strength in the tackle, speed, creativity and the right mentality.’’
These attributes have seen the Belgian hold down the central defensive midfield role for his national team for a number of years now. Witsel is the axis on which the golden generation turns, the player who keeps the entire team in sync and who grants attacking stars like Kevin de Bruyne and Eden Hazard the freedom to truly shine. Despite making everything look effortless, Witsel is in fact a very hard worker. He manages to cover the space and close down opposition players before the ball comes their way. He’s also both extremely secure and highly effective with the ball at his feet.
Witsel was raised in Vottem, a town near Liège, and made his first steps in the game of football in the youth set-up of CS Visé before moving on to Standard Liège. He made his debut in the Jupiler Pro League on 17 September 2006 against Brussels FC. In the 2007/08 season, he was part of an imposing Liège midfield which also contained Steven Defour and Marouane Fellaini. That season, Witsel, the son of a Belgian native and a French immigrant from Martinique, won his first Belgian title and also received both the prize for best young player of the year as well as the golden shoe for best player in the league.
After a year at Benfica (2011/12), Witsel moved to Zenit St. Petersburg, where he remained until January 2017. After winning two league titles with Liège (2008 and 2009), the Belgian managed to add the 2015 Russian league title to his medal collection. Then, in the 2017 January transfer window, an offer almost too good to turn down came in from China. Witsel duly accepted, despite the fact Juventus had also expressed interest.
After the 2018 World Cup, both player and family (wife Rafaella and children Mai-Li and Evy) were eager to return to Europe. After an extended holiday in Ibiza after the World Cup, Witsel travelled directly to BVB training camp in Bad Ragaz in order to seize the chance to prove himself wearing Black & Yellow and competing in one of Europe’s top leagues. Upon his arrival at the club he said the following: ‘‘I’m completely happy and proud to be able to play for BVB. For me, Dortmund are one of the best clubs in Europe. Getting the chance to play in front of 81,000 fans at Signal Iduna Park is just unbelievable.’’