On Sunday evening, Paris Saint-Germain and Olympique Marseille come face to face in the latest instalment of the biggest rivalry in French football. Generating an inordinate amount of coverage in the national media and great anticipation among the country’s football fans, Le Classico is not for the faint-hearted and invariably demands no little courage and determination on the part of the players. 

One man who will not be found wanting in that respect is Marseille left-back Gabriel Heinze. The Argentina international, known in the game as El Gringo, has few rivals when it comes to commitment and grit. He also knows what this classic encounter means to both sets of supporters, having made his name in a three-year stint with PSG.

Now making a success of things at the Stade Velodrome, the tough-tackling Heinze spoke this week about his time with the Parisians, his defensive attributes and his appreciation for a good old-fashioned derby contest.

The springboard to success
After emerging with Newell’s Old Boys in his homeland, Heinze did not take long to earn a move to the bright lights of Europe, making only eight appearances for the Rosario club before joining Real Valladolid. Failing to make much of an impression initially in Spain, the fearless defender was loaned out to Sporting Lisbon for a season before returning to the Liga outfit, where he played 54 games in two seasons. His performances with Los Pucelanos led to a move to PSG, where his star continued to rise.

Heinze's tenacity, bold tackling and goalscoring ability soon earned him the adulation of the Parc des Princes. And though Marseille fans might not share his views, Heinze has nothing but gratitude for the Parisians. “I had three amazing seasons at PSG,” he says. “Thanks to the club, the directors and Luis Fernandez, the man who signed me, I was finally able to play for my country and pull on the most beautiful jersey in the world. It was down to Paris Saint-Germain and no one else that my career finally took on an international dimension.”

It was down to Paris Saint-Germain and no one else that my career finally took on an international dimension.

Gabriel Heinze

Capping his rewarding stay in the French capital by winning the Intertoto Cup and the Coupe de France in 2004, he then moved to the English Premier League, where he brought his defensive qualities to bear for Manchester United.

Those qualities once again made him a firm favourite with the supporters, and at the end of his first season at Old Trafford he collected the Sir Matt Busby award as their player of the year. Heinze repaid the fans by helping United land the title in 2006/07, his last contribution before joining Real Madrid, where he won the league and Spanish Super Cup in 2008. However, within a year of those triumphs he was on the move again, his return to France prompting speculation of a move back to PSG.

Making waves on the Mediterranean
“I don’t think the PSG board were that keen on bringing me back to Paris to be honest,” he counters. “They said I’d be too expensive and as far as they’re concerned I’m part of the past there. Marseille lives and breathes football and the fans are really passionate. The atmosphere here and the love they have for the white shirt remind me of Argentina. And in any case, I’m not the kind of person who likes to look back.” 

Proof of that came as a focused Heinze made a sterling contribution to l’OM’s Ligue 1 and League Cup double last season and their French Super Cup win over their Parisian foes in July. Equally happy at left-back or in the centre of defence, the Argentinian’s versatility, presence and steely commitment have made him something of an idol at the Velodrome.

“We’re imbued with that desire from an early age back home,” explains Heinze, who has won 71 caps for his country. “It’s in our blood and it’s something that’s quite hard to explain. From Daniel Passarella to Oscar Ruggeri and Roberto Ayala, we have a long tradition of this type of player in Argentina, and they were all defenders with a lot of character.”

In continuing that lineage, Heinze has won the admiration of his club coach Didier Deschamps: “Gaby is a key figure on and off the pitch. He’s a terrific fighter and leader and his presence is vital to the team.” His importance to the Marseille cause was made abundantly clear in the two league meetings with PSG last season. Capping an imperious display with the only goal of the first encounter at the Velodrome, Heinze then shrugged off a chorus of whistles in Paris to help l'OM to a comprehensive 3-0 win.

“I expected a reception like that,” he comments. “Part of me was happy because we’d achieved our objective of winning the game, but I felt a little bit sad about it too. Even so, no matter which country you’re in, big derbies like this one are always special. They’re unique and it’s always a game I enjoy playing in.” 

An affable figure off the pitch, Heinze is as resilient as they come on it. Whatever the welcome that awaits him at his old stamping ground on Sunday, the feisty Argentinian will not be shirking the challenge.