With Jurgen Klopp and Thomas Tuchel to face off again as two of the world’s very best managers, it may come as some surprise that they both owe their careers to a used car salesman.
Liverpool take on Chelsea in the FA Cup final at Wembley with the opposing German coaches undoubtedly from the most elite bracket of football managers.
Both Champions League winners with their respective English sides, there’s not a club in the world that wouldn’t employ either coach, which makes it all the more surprising that they were both discovered by the same man.
Tuchel’s early career followed that of Klopp’s, with both managing Mainz and then Borussia Dortmund, before they diverged, meeting back below the arch in north London on Saturday.
Their careers in black and yellow were what garnered international recognition with scintillating football in Westphalia, but it was at Mainz where their journeys began.
And that wouldn’t have been possible without a man of whom Klopp once said: “After my parents he was my biggest influence.”
Christian Heidel called his local team Mainz a ‘allotment club’ when reflecting back on when he joined the team part-time in 1992, now they’ve been a Bundesliga regular for 13 years.
Much of that is with thanks to Klopp and Tuchel, but there’s a good chance neither would be household names without Heidel.
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“Jurgen Klopp has been a godsend for the club,” said president Harald Strutz. “But the first stroke of luck was the decision to tie Christian Heidel to the club in a responsible position.”
Heidel began working for the team alongside his main job as a used car dealer, and got the post by attracting Strutz’s attention in 1990 when he bought all 15,000 tickets for Mainz’s fifth division league game as a publicity stunt for his garage.
The 58-year-old struggled to juggle both jobs, admitting he ‘rarely saw his wife and two children’ and dealing with the playing staff was even more tricky.
“Although I was a manager, I didn’t have an office at all,” he later revealed. “I don’t even know where I should have signed contracts.
“There was no office for me, so the entire department was actually handled in my office at the car dealership.
“The players actually came by almost every day, the coach sat down from time to time.
“I must say, it was the most intense time of my football life to this day. Because it started at seven in the morning and sometimes went on until 11pm at night.”
It wasn’t long into Heidel’s time at the club before things went downhill, and the intensity stepped up even further when a boardroom meeting hit the headlines as financial troubles worsened and playing staff left.
“There were 20 trialists, of which 18 were 30 kilos overweight,” he reflected.
A new head coach was also needed, and after Heidel took on the CEO job full time, he even thought about putting himself forward, but one player instead jumped in the firing line.
“I’ll do it on an interim basis until maybe someone has been trained,” he thought. “And then came the decision to hire Klopp.”
“I wasn’t 100 per cent convinced at first,” Heidel explained. “But I was 100 per cent convinced after Jurgen Klopp’s first session with the players on the same day.
“The team got together and after the second player session even I was ready. If I had been given the chance, I would have played too.
“I planned the training and I told our people on the board that this will work 100 per cent.”
Klopp, though, soon found out what Heidel really thought of him.
“He thought I was a crappy soccer player,” the Liverpool boss joked. “You noticed that later on from the filthy contracts he always gave me when I was still a player.
“‘Honestly, you’re at the top here, you really are the top earners,’ and then when I’m a coach here and it’s only then that I see the players’ contracts.
“I have to drive straight to his car to flatten the tires! But he made it up to me.”
It’s hard to believe now with Klopp competing for a record four trophies with Liverpool, but in his early career things were far from easy.
Heidel had Mainz as a second division regular, but it took eight years for Klopp to get them into the top flight for the first time, coming painfully close on three occasions before making the fourth stick in 2004.
Mainz had achieved the improbable thanks to Heidel and Klopp, and despite relegation in 2007, they soon returned to the Bundesliga where they have been ever since.
A European worthy stadium was built in 2011 on the backs of their manager and director, but it wasn’t until Heidel’s next coaching appointment that they went continental for the first time.
Replacing Klopp was another unenviable task, and one that Dortmund still haven’t solved a decade on, but at Mainz, Heidel again went a different route.
He explained: “I think it was a very, very important decision, also as a signal to the outside world that this club is very, very strong.”
The first appointment, Jorn Andersen, didn’t work out, but Heidel had an ace up his sleeve.
He’d already managed to snare Under-19 league winner Tuchel from Augsburg to coach Mainz’ youth team, and it didn’t take long for the unprecedented step of a quick promotion.
Heidel explained why Tuchel justified the decision: “The main requirement a trainer needs is social skills, it’s very, very important.
“A trainer needs charisma, innate authority, and finally, ridiculous as it may sound, a coach needs to be 1.90 metres.
“I prefer it when they’re over 1.60 metres and training, because that brings a certain charisma with it, but the basis for everything is an intelligence that has to be there.”
A first UEFA Cup venture was achieved in 2005 having only returned to the top flight the previous year, and following that up with the construction of the 34,000-seater Mewa Arena has turned the ‘allotment club’ into a Bundesliga regular.
Three further Europa League campaigns have followed with the might of Heidel’s achievement shown in stark contrast to a number of struggling giants such as Hamburg, Kaiserslautern and Schalke.
The last of which, Schalke, Heidel joined in 2016 after a tear-flooded farewell, but left in 2019, and the team were then relegated to the second tier for the first time in 30 years.
Klopp spoke at Heidel’s Mainz departure, with a message from Anfield popping up on the big screen.
“Maybe you have to say you were the heart and soul of this club,” Klopp said, and was proved right when Heidel returned in 2020.
This year marks three decades since the used car salesman joined his local side’s struggling boardroom, and his impact on them has been unrivalled in Europe.
However, Heidel remains an unknown outside of Germany, which should come as a surprise considering his impact on the global game will be in full view on the touchline at Wembley on Saturday.
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