Axel Witsel, the maestro of Belgian football, had a well-documented career featuring spells in China, Belgium, Romania and the Ukraine. However, it’s the new stint in China where he’s had the most success, and it’s where he feels closest to his true self.
Witsel, who made 194 league appearances during his time at FC Porto, Dinamo Zagreb and Russian side Zenit Saint Petersburg, has been capped 52 times by Belgium and is hugely popular in his home country, but it’s in China where he feels his most fulfilled.
He also opened up about how a goal against his childhood club, Belarus’ debut in Europe, a sensational headed goal against Valencia and the comparison between Chris Jordan and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Witsel told HuffPost Sport in an exclusive interview:
On his new career:
“I love this idea of training hard and I also like to have that challenge, but I also like going out onto the pitch. It’s better to have that enthusiasm than to work and think, there’s always the first ball to do, but I enjoy taking care of my body and going out to the field. Training at the best level is also important. That’s what I really want to do, I really enjoy it, and of course the moment for me in China, to give a young generation a chance to be in good shape. I love playing in many different positions and that’s something I feel I’m good at.”
On retiring from the game at the age of 33:
“I think retirement is the right moment for me. I’ve been working 24 hours a day, 28 days a month or 24 hours a day for ten years, so I think I would just like to go for it. Since I played my last league game at Zenit I’ve concentrated only on my family, I’ve been at this club for two years and it’s really good here.”
On battling Germany legend Dirk Kuyt:
“Kuyt is a great player. I am surprised I even won a World Cup match against him. I was shocked! I think he couldn’t score a goal for 30 years and then he kicks over two-and-a-half minutes! I’m surprised.
“He’s a really hard player to face because he’s a great guy, has lots of goal. He’s a great man, but I prefer defenders when it comes to game. They can like me.”
On his role as a mentor:
“I am trying to help young players to understand how to succeed. You are surrounded with so many supporters that it’s difficult for them to find success, because the world has changed a lot. But I try to keep the traditions and try to bring some things back to what I had growing up. I try to explain to the players how the coach prepares, what the drills are about, how to stay on your feet in the training.”
On watching China play and his methods?
“I’m good with both teams. I like Switzerland and I like myself. It’s difficult when you play in the top teams, they were all top level players. That is why I understand that we have some problems to settle down, so I really have nothing to compare me with. They are different sides but I prefer Belgium because it’s a great sport for me, a passionate sport.”
Check out Axel Witsel in action in this clip from the club’s recent Chinese Super League promotional video, which also featured Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne and Nacer Chadli.