Going into his first Uefa Champions League final as a manager, Jupp Heynckes knew the writing was on the wall. He spoke to his president, Lorenzo Sanz and, according to Sanz’s recollection of the conversation, Heynckes’ had reached his wit’s end. The Real Madrid dressing-room seemed unmanageable, made its own rules, he said, sounding exasperated.
Heynckes was not alone for finding Madrid’s collection of strong personalities and superstars of the late 1990s a challenging group. In the German’s one season in charge, they were domestic underachievers, too, finishing fourth in the Primera Liga. They were almost nobody’s favourites to win a European Cup final against a Juventus participating in their third final on the trot. Heynckes suspected that, whatever happened, he would be saying goodbye to the club after that. Sanz felt so too.
This was 20 years ago, when Heynckes was in his early 50s. One of his chief tasks in the last team-talk he ever gave to his bumptious squad was outlining how to contain Juve’s playmaker, Zinedine Zidane. Either they listened or had made their own schemes, because on that night of the final in Amsterdam, Juventus were stymied and Heynckes ensured his place in history as the manager who delivered Madrid’s first European Cup for 32 years, their seventh overall. He would scarcely have foreseen that 1-0 win, sealed by a Predrag Mijatovic goal, and aided by the excellent defending of Fernando Hierro, was a watershed. Madrid started winning the most prestigious prize in club football regularly again from then on.
Heynckes takes on Zidane again on Wendesday in Munich, the 72-year-old German aiming for a third European Cup of his long management career against the 45-year-old Frenchman seeking a third European Cup triumph in as many years as a senior manager. It is an unexpected collision in as far as Heynckes was very firmly an ex-manager until last October. He had been since saying goodbye to football, with a Champions League title, at the end of his third spell with Bayern Munich, in 2013.
He needed some persuading to come back as a stop-gap, after Carlo Ancelotti was sacked after a 3-0 defeat against Paris Saint-Germain. An unhappy Bayern dressing-room, with plenty of strong-minded, worldly men in it, had its say on where Ancelotti had gone wrong, but there was broad approval from Bayern's senior players of the idea of Heynckes as a replacement. Certainly, Heynckes finds this Bayern more manageable than he did the Madrid of 20 years ago. The fruits of accumulated experience have something to do with that, as well as the relationships he had formed in the past with Bayern's longer-serving barons, like Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery, Jerome Boateng and Thomas Muller.
In Madrid, it has been noted how Heynckes - who has this season guided Bayern from five points behind in the table to yet another Bundesliga title - has turned one their recent hard-to-manage stars into Bayern’s blessing. Heynckes inherited James Rodriguez as a long-term loanee, freshly arrived in Munich from Madrid, and found him in need of physical conditioning and a morale boost.
"We talked a lot and gained each other's confidence," Heynckes told El Mundo. Rodriguez, left out by Zidane from the matchday squad who won the Champions League for Madrid in Cardiff last June, has found a role behind the strikers at Bayern, has 10 assists and six goals from a season where his huge potential has been tapped again.
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Heynckes had a significant part in the flowering of Toni Kroos, too, the Madrid midfielder having played under Heynckes at Bayer Leverkusen and at Bayern, who sold him to Madrid in 2014. “He has become a true leader,” notes Heynckes of Kroos, whose evolution as a deep-lying midfielder has been finessed in the Madrid phase of his career.
Kroos was part of the Bayern who, under Heynckes, eliminated Madrid in an epic European semi-final six years ago, Kroos having a penalty saved in the decisive shoot-out where both Cristiano Ronaldo and Sergio Ramos failed to find the target. And Heynckes was in the same Bayern manager’s seat way back in 1988, when Madrid overcame the German club 4-3 on aggregate in the quarter-finals. A decade later, he was winning the trophy as a madridista, counting down the days to his relieved departure. Twenty years on from that, he prepares the last glorious act of a career for which both Munich, and Madrid, will thank him for ever.