FIFA World Cup-winning defender Lucas Hernandez has opened up on his new life with Bayern Munich, describing his delight at joining the Bundesliga's "winning machine" as he looks to take the next step in an already successful career.
In a wide-ranging interview with France Football, the 23-year-old talked about inheriting Philipp Lahm's shirt number, the differences between Spain and Germany, and why he'll never get used to eating dinner at 7pm…
Though he was born in Marseille and has represented France since U16 level, Hernandez has a distinctly Spanish flavour to him, and not just because of his name. Having moved to the country of Cervantes as a boy, he began playing with Rayo Majadahonda on the outskirts of the capital before being snapped up by Atletico Madrid in 2007, at the age of just 11.
A pure product of the club's academy, Hernandez worked his way up through the ranks and eventually broke into the first team, helping Atletico to win the 2017/18 UEFA Europa League and the 2018 UEFA Super Cup under Diego Simeone. After also lifting the 2018 FIFA World Cup with France, the highly rated defender decided it was time to mix things up.
"It was the right moment for me to make a change, to try something different – a new city, a new culture, a new country," he explained. "Bayern was perfectly suited to my profile, my mentality and my ambitions. The club management and players told me I would be joining a family, and it's true. Bayern are a historic club. I've already got a decent amount of experience and a handy-looking CV, but I'm a big competitor and I want to win even more titles. Bayern are a winning machine, so it was perfect for me. I can really improve here."
Bayern announced that they had agreed a five-year deal with Hernandez in March 2019, several months before he completed his move in July, with an 80-million-euro price tag that immediately made him one of the most expensive defenders in history.
"I've never really put myself under pressure, but I'm aware of the effort Bayern went to in order to sign me," he admitted. "That's why I don't want to disappoint the club or the supporters. It's my job to work hard and prove myself worthy of their trust. I always give everything, in games or in training."
Simeone later claimed in Marca that Hernandez's departure was "even more painful" than that of star forward Antoine Griezmann for Barcelona, but the German giants were determined to get their man – even if he was suffering with knee ligament damage at the time, and was after a particularly special shirt number…
"During our discussions, they asked which number I wanted," Hernandez explained. "I said 21. I was world champion with 21. When I arrived at Atletico, I took 21 and we won the UEFA Super Cup. I told them it was a number I liked and it would be great if they could give it to me. They replied that it was Philipp Lahm's number, and that nobody had taken it since he retired, but that I could have it if I joined the club.
"It was a sign of the confidence they placed in me. You realise that they're genuinely interested and ready to do anything for you. They'd already proved it by taking me when my knee was in a bad way. Ninety per cent of clubs wouldn't have bought an injured player, but Bayern were confident. The staff knew I had a serious injury, but that if I recovered well and did what I had to, everything would be fine."
Indeed, having undergone surgery in March, Hernandez had recovered sufficiently to take part in team training by early August. He shrugged on a Bayern shirt for the first time in a 23-0 friendly win over minnows Rottach-Egern, before making his competitive debut as a late substitute in the DFB Cup first-round win over Energie Cottbus. That trip was enough for him to realise that the Germans are even crazier about football than the Spanish.
"In Germany, all the stadiums are full, wherever you go. You don't see that in Spain. We played a Cup game against a fourth-division side, and the stadium was full. You go to their ground thinking the game is going to be easier than usual, but when you see all their fans singing and getting behind their team, in the end it's not so simple. It's impressive.
"At the same time, fans here leave you in peace. They're very respectful. In Munich, people recognise you but rarely come up to you, and even less if you're with your family. In Spain, I could be in the middle of a conversation and a fan would barge in, grab me and take a selfie without asking. The respect the Germans have is incredible."
Hernandez has also found the Bundesliga very different to La Liga in terms of what happens on the pitch. He has certainly chosen a very competitive season to arrive in the German top flight, with the top seven teams separated by just two points during the October international break.
"In Spain it's more technical. In Germany, it's more tactical and more physical. Over here, players put in a lot of intensity from the first few minutes of the game. In Spain, you've got time to get the measure of your opponent, see how they start. In Germany, there's no time to think. If you think, you're in trouble. They're flat out from the start. That's what makes the difference."
Never one to shy away from a physical challenge, the rugged Hernandez has made a solid start to life in the Bundesliga. In his five league outings to date, Bayern have claimed four wins and a draw away to fellow title contenders RB Leipzig, scoring 17 goals and conceding just four. The 23-year-old has also demonstrated his versatility, playing at centre-back alongside Niklas Süle as well as slotting in at left-back for the injured David Alaba.
"I came here to play in central defence," he declared. "But Alaba got injured, which is why I shifted out to the left. It's not a problem. In the France team, I know I'm a left-back. I've always played in that position for the national teams, from U16 onwards. I'm just here to listen to the coach and help the team. I play where he tells me to play."
That 'one for all' attitude is no doubt helping Hernandez to find his feet in Munich, with club CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge recently praising his efforts to learn German as quickly as possible. Another of Bayern's summer recruits, Philippe Coutinho, has described the Bavarian outfit as "more of a family" than any of his previous clubs, and his French teammate clearly agrees.
"The club looks after you like a member of the family," he acknowledged. "Their reputation is fully justified. Everyone looks out for you, checks whether you need anything, whether you're settling in nicely. It's like being in a cocoon, it's remarkable."
Watch: Hernandez made his Bundesliga debut in a 3-0 win over Schalke
Hernandez was also pleasantly surprised to discover that there are no ego clashes to be found in the Bayern dressing room, even if it is chock-full of footballing superstars who have won more trophies than most of us have had hot dinners.
"In your head, you think 'wow, it must be something'," he said. "You've got world-class players like [Robert] Lewandowski or [Thomas] Müller, who've played everywhere, won everything. And actually you quickly realise that it's a normal dressing room, where everyone is relaxed. It's not split into different camps. Everyone speaks to everyone else."
Bayern have made a habit of adding French flair to their game in recent years, and Hernandez is currently one of five players bringing a touch of 'je ne sais quoi' to Niko Kovac's squad, along with Kingsley Coman, Michael Cuisance and fellow World Cup winners Benjamin Pavard and Corentin Tolisso. The former Atletico man even got a chance to meet France's greatest-ever export to Germany before he bade farewell to Bavaria this summer.
"I also met Franck Ribery, even if it wasn't for very long," Hernandez explained. "He was really nice to me, talked to me a lot, gave me advice. He's a top guy. You can't imagine how much they love him over there, he's a legend."
Hernandez has a long way to go if he hopes to match Ribery in the fans' affections, but he certainly seems to be adapting well to life in Germany. As well as making progress with the language, the Marseille native took part in a proud Bayern tradition last month: Oktoberfest.
"I'd never done it before, it was funny, you have a good laugh with your teammates," he grinned. "But they serve you in litres! And I'm more accustomed to light beers. When you have two or three sips you can already feel it. We had to take it easy!"
However, there is one aspect of life in Germany that Hernandez is finding it hard to adapt to after spending 18 years in Spain…
"The meal times! I'm not used to eating lunch at midday," he laughed. "In Spain, I would eat at 2.30pm, 3pm. It's the same in the evening. When we're with the club we eat at 7pm. It's hard. By 11pm I'm starving! But I'm going to adapt to it all, to this new culture. No problem."
For Bayern, it has presumably been "no problem" welcoming Hernandez into their ranks either. Ambitious, curious and open-minded – not to mention a world-class footballer – the France defender looks set to continue his country's proud tradition at Germany's biggest club, and become a firm fan favourite in the process.
"In coming to Bayern, I'm joining one of the best clubs in the world," he summarised. "I wanted to put myself under a bit of pressure by going to a club with a different language and culture, rather than staying in my comfort zone in Madrid. I'm very happy and very proud to be in Munich. The city is nice, and the club is incredible!"
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