x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Gabriel Heinze, Marseille's 'hard man' against United

The defender has made the most of limited ability through hard work and hard tackling. Tonight he plays against his former club Manchester United for the first time.

Heinze is known for his hard tackling and as an industrious player.
Heinze is known for his hard tackling and as an industrious player.

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Gabriel Heinze and the Champions League are old adversaries. Some supporters of Manchester United, those who travel far and wide, may even recall the night Heinze made his debut in the competition.

It was in Lyon, shortly after he had signed for Sir Alex Ferguson's team in 2004, and his initiation was pure Heinze. Six minutes in, he made an introductory tackle on Sidney Govou, the speedy Lyon winger.

Govou remained on the ground a full minute. "He really gets stuck in," said Wes Brown, his United teammate, afterwards.

A few days earlier, Heinze had scored for United on his Premier League debut. Six and a half years, and two clubs on, Heinze, now of Olympique Marseille, comes up against United for the first time since he left Old Trafford.

Memories will be mixed. His departure from Manchester in 2007 had been sour.

Heinze had made a good start to his career in English football but after three years was struggling to impose himself in the club's hierarchy of defenders. He found himself in a losing battle with Patrice Evra, the more technically gifted left-back, and his opportunities at centre-back, his other favoured position, were always likely to be limited once Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic were forming their solid partnership.

Liverpool, United's rivals, became interested in signing Heinze, United blocked the move; Heinze continued to press for it. The issue went to arbitration and Heinze went instead to Real Madrid

He won a Spanish league title there, and at Marseille last season he completed an impressive collection, domestic championship medals in France, Spain and England.

Not bad for a footballer who was waved off from Argentina, aged 19, bound for European football, with the words "well done ... but remember, you can't play football" offered as a farewell by Jorge Griffa, his former coach and mentor at Newell's Old Boys.

It was an affectionate remark, a tribute to Heinze's capacity through hard work to compensate for his shortcomings as an athlete. Heinze's movements are not especially smooth, his build - 5ft 8ins tall - no obvious clue to his strength in the air, and his awkward posture can make him look uncomfortable in possession.

He is a defender first, the "hard man" of the OM rearguard, but one confident enough of his left foot to seek the longer pass and comfortable carrying the ball along the touchline from full-back.

He comes from the Argentine countryside, is a keen horseman and answers among compatriots to the nickname "el Aleman", the German.

The clue is in the surname: Heinze's father's family emigrated to South America from Germany. Diego Maradona, the former head coach of Argentina, calls him "el Gringo", the Outsider, for similar reasons.

Maradona put great faith in Heinze during the last World Cup; more than Ferguson had shown at United when he let him leave;,more than Real felt when they sold him to Marseille in 2009.

Heinze's ruggedness, his vocal leadership and his transparent determination were important to Maradona. Heinze responded with a spectacular start to Argentina's campaign in South Africa.

He scored, with a bullet header, after six minutes of their opening match against Nigeria. He has played 62 times for his country and, as a boy, admired the caustic style of certain Argentine defenders.

"I grew up liking Maradona, obviously, because I was like any Argentinian kid, but also defenders like Daniel Passarella, or Nestor Sensini," he once told me. "But mainly, my idol was my dad, Jorge, who gave me all the support when I first moved away."

That first move abroad, 13 years ago, to Spain's Real Valladolid, seems a long time ago now. There was a spell at Sporting in Portugal, then Paris Saint-Germain, then United, Real and now Marseille.

At 32, the legs ache for longer after matches than they used to, but Heinze's fire still burns fierce.

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