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Jadon Sancho is not the only street footballer at Borussia Dortmund, as Axel Witsel reveals in our exclusive interview. - © 2019 DFL
Jadon Sancho is not the only street footballer at Borussia Dortmund, as Axel Witsel reveals in our exclusive interview. - © 2019 DFL

Borussia Dortmund's Axel Witsel: "I grew up playing futsal more than football"


He may be one of the Bundesliga and Europe's most feared defensive midfielders, but Axel Witsel learned about the technical game of futsal before football.

Witsel is certainly far more than just a ball-winning defensive midfielder, as he has proven with Borussia Dortmund since joining in the summer of 2018.

In an exclusive interview with bundesliga.com, Borussia's Belgian baller speaks about how he first got into football watching his father play professionally in two sports, as well as what it's like to play against Schalke and Bayern Munich as a Dortmund player...

Watch: How Witsel makes Dortmund tick!

bundesliga.com: Axel, how and why did you first get into football?

Axel Witsel: "First of all, I was born in Liege. In the beginning, with my parents, I lived in Vottem. It's really a very small city in Liege. I started at four years old at FC Vottem – the small club from my small city. I was four years old and I could only play the friendly games and train because I was too young. My dad played football - not at a high level like first division, a smaller division in Belgium - so I was always at his game, every weekend. And he played futsal also in the first division in Belgium for 12 years. At the beginning, I was more interested in playing futsal than football. I don't know why. I was always with my dad and then my dad said to me: 'you will have more future in football than futsal'. Because the level of the first division of football and futsal in Belgium – there is a big difference. Football is more famous than futsal. And then I came to Standard Liege when I was nine years old."

bundesliga.com: Do you think playing futsal from a young age has benefitted you as a footballer?  

Witsel: "Yeah, yeah. It helps you because it's more about technique at the beginning than football. I was always watching my dad and then playing on the futsal pitch indoors. And also the street, because I was always playing outside with my friends. I think futsal and the street help you a lot technically."

bundesliga.com: Was your father your main source of inspiration growing up in terms of football?

Witsel: “Yeah, it was my dad. And then playing in the street with my friends. Finish school, straight away you left your bag, 'okay mum, dad I just go to play football' - it was like that every weekend."

bundesliga.com: When did you first realise that you were better than everyone else?

Witsel: "When I first came to Standard Liege at nine years old, they actually came in for me one year earlier. Because I was at Vottem like I told you, then I moved to Vise, it's another club. At that time, Vise was in the second division so was quite famous in Liege. They [Standard Liege] came for me when I was eight and because I was in Vise I made like a trial, so I had to go there and train with the team of my age. Then my dad just asked me – I didn't make the decision in the end because I was a child. He asked me, 'did you like it?' and I said 'no, no, I don't like to be here, I don’t know anybody, they are too small for me, so I just want to stay with my friends'. So, I stayed one more year with Vise. And then my dad said: 'yeah, but this is a big opportunity if one day you would like to play as a professional'. And I said, 'no, I just want to go back with my friends'. So, my dad said no to the coach and then they came back again one year later. And then my dad said: 'if they come two times you have to go'. So, I moved to Standard."

bundesliga.com: Were you required to leave home in order to further your footballing career?

Witsel: "No, because Vise at this time was 20 minutes from the house of my parents and the academy of Standard Liege was the same - 20, 25 minutes. I stayed at home, I stayed with my parents."

bundesliga.com: Did you endure any difficult moments at the start of your career?

Witsel: "You know, sometimes you're young, and you just want to enjoy life, to go out with your friends, and you cannot do it. If you want to become a professional footballer, you have to make some sacrifices. In the end, when you look back, you say, my dad and my parents, they were wise to always take care of me."

Axel Witsel began his professional career with Standard Liege in Belgium. - imago/Belga

bundesliga.com: Did you always believe that you would become a professional footballer?

“Straight away. Like I said, at nine or 10 years old. You have the stadium and then a big road to go to the academy. I won't say in the mountains, but it's uphill. So in the rear-view mirror inside of the car, you can see the stadium and I just said to my dad: 'one day I just want to play in this stadium'. We were driving to the academy. My dad said: 'yeah, you can do it, but you'll have to work really hard'. And I said: 'yeah, I will, don't worry'. And I was like nine or 10. So, at that time it was already my objective, yeah."

bundesliga.com: Did you remember those words when you stepped out onto the pitch for your first match for Standard Liege?

"Yeah, of course, Amazing. My first time as a professional - I had goosebumps. It was crazy."

bundesliga.com: You've been joined by another Belgian at the club this season. How has Thorgan Hazard settled in?

"It's good, I'm happy to have another friend and Belgian player here in Dortmund. But he knows already, I don't need to be at his side too much, guiding him because he knows everything here in Germany, Bundesliga, the life, everything. I think he's good after only a few months here. He feels really good and is already a part of the family in Dortmund."

Thorgan Hazard joined Borussia Dortmund in the summer of 2019 to join fellow countryman Axel Witsel at the club. - 2019 DFL

bundesliga.com: How would you describe the Revierderby against Schalke?

Witsel: "Yeah, it's crazy. It’s a crazy game. I can compare maybe when I was in Belgium, so I would say about the atmosphere, about the feeling you have before the game, to Standard and Anderlecht. But last season we lost at home and you can do what you want during the season, but this is the game you have to win. Because otherwise our fans, they are really not happy.”

bundesliga.com: Did you feel that particularly strongly after the defeat against Schalke?

Witsel: "I knew it was really important, and everyone told me before it's really, really important for the club, for the fans, for the city, for everyone. But maybe I wasn't totally aware because when we lost and then at the end of the game just wanted to say, as we usually do, thank you - we just went off the pitch because the fans were crazy. And they were right to be because we lost and these kinds of games - you have to win these games. For this season - touch wood - we'll win the game."

bundesliga.com: How would you describe Der Klassiker and matches against Bayern?

Witsel: "Here at home good because we won, and we played a fantastic game. But there [in Munich], there was a bad day I would say. Even worse than a bad day. We just didn't play our game there."

Axel Witsel knows you have to fight for every ball in the Revierderby against Schalke. - 2018 DFL

bundesliga.com: Is there more pressure than normal going into Der Klassiker and the Revierderby?

Witsel: "No, because the atmosphere, everything - you feel that more against Schalke than against Bayern. It's just my opinion, but you can feel that even for the fans. I think for our fans it's more important to win against Schalke than to win against Bayern. Of course, if we win against Bayern, they'll be really happy. But if we lose against Bayern, they won't have the same reaction as if we lose against Schalke."

bundesliga.com: There must be a certain pressure against Bayern as you are both fighting for the title?

Witsel: "Yeah, of course. It's the big rival for the fight for the title, I understand. But it's just how I see things after my first year and at home against Bayern we played with real guts. And in Munich, we played without. This is the difference - it's not about pressure or experience or too young, just that."

bundesliga.com: Will Philippe Coutinho improve Bayern this season?

Witsel: "I think so because, you know, Coutinho is a fantastic player. I played against him against Brazil and he has a lot of quality. You don't play for Barcelona for no reason. I think it's a good move for Bayern."

Axel Witsel has shown no fear in games against Bayern Munich since he joined Borussia Dortmund. - 2018 DFL