Mauricio Pochettino’s face breaks into a big smile. The topic is that post-match interview after the Ajax game. He had started off well, namechecking hat-trick hero Lucas Moura and making reference to the hard times at Spurs before the top lip trembled.
He mentioned his family and then big, fat tears started to flow: the grizzly, hard-man centre-half of Argentinian football was blubbing like Gwyneth Paltrow accepting an Oscar.
He laughs at himself now. ‘It’s not rare!’ he insists. ‘My mother said to me, “You are a llorona!”’ He turns to his assistant, Jesus Perez. ‘How do you say that in English?’ he asks. Literally it means a weeping woman in Latin American culture. Drama queen is perhaps the closest phrase in English.
Mauricio Pochettino breaks down in tears after his Tottenham team beat Ajax in Amsterdam
‘My mum always says, “He’s happy, he cries. He’s sad, he cries. Come on! Stop crying!” My mum and my other two brothers are different. My dad is more strong… ’ He corrects himself. ‘I am strong but very emotional and I cry.’ He then launches a lengthy story to illustrate the point.
‘Sometimes I take my car to go to my house, 20 minutes to Barnet, and listen to some music on the way. And the music translates to some moment in my life and I start [to cry].’
He describes his wife Karina approaching him, concerned at his reddened eyes. ‘My wife says, “What happened?!” And I say, “Oh, I was listening to some music that translated [to a moment in my life] 30 years ago in Argentina!”’
The disdainful look he might receive as he wipes the tears away can only be imagined. Pochettino mimics the rolling of the eyes.
Does he cry at films? ‘Films: I cry,’ he says. ‘I cry at everything!’
But Pochettino knows what he is. Emotional intelligence is the key to how he works, as he will describe later. But for now he is still on about how he felt on that extraordinary night at the Johan Cruyff Arena and his summation of those emotions that night will give Tottenham fans, fearful of his veiled threats that the Champions League final might be the end of something, considerable hope.
‘There were two different feelings mixed in the same moment,’ he says. ‘Reaching the Champions League final is the end of an amazing chapter for the club. But at the same time, the moment that you reach the final, it’s like, “I want to be involved in the next chapter of the club”. It’s both feelings.
‘You always put yourself in five years’ time, 10 years’ time, or tomorrow. We need to be ahead of the players, ahead of the fans. Our responsibility is to create a project again, to try to achieve something important for the club. The fanbase we have deserves that.’
Pochettino sinks to his knees at the Johan Cruijff ArenA after Tottenham’s semi-final victory
Pochettino is relaxed, sat on a sofa at Spurs Lodge, the impressive training ground near Enfield, with Perez, his trusted assistant, nearby. He is berating Perez, who has torn his calf muscle in training the previous day, coincidentally when David Beckham was visiting.
‘He was trying to show off how well he could cross the ball in front of Beckham!’ Pochettino says of Perez, who smiles sheepishly and feigns the look of a man chastised.
These two complement each other perfectly, Perez quieter, less extrovert yet integral to success. And together with coaches Miguel D’Agostino and Toni Jimenez, they have overseen something like a revolution in how the world perceives Tottenham.
Before they arrived at the club in 2014, it was unthinkable that Tottenham would be in a Champions League final. They had reached the quarter-finals under Harry Redknapp but that was the exception, not the norm. If Pochettino had presented a Champions League final as part of a five-year plan, you might have arched an eyebrow higher than Carlo Ancelotti.
And it did not look too good in November 2014. One win in seven Premier League games only four months into the job, it all looked a bit, well, Spursy, to be honest. Not quite the full Christian Gross. But a bit Juande Ramos.
The Spurs manager says he cries very often and claims his mum tells him: ‘You are a llorona!’
The coaching team were in their hotel on Saturday night in that season for a Sunday game at Aston Villa. ‘I remember we arrived in Birmingham and, after the results on the Saturday, we were going to start on Sunday in 13th or 14th place. For Tottenham, it was like, “What the f*** are we doing?”
‘We felt the pressure. We conceded a goal and created a lot of chances in the first half without scoring. The second half, it was like, “If we lose this game, I don’t know what is going to happen, but I think we’ll be close to going back to Barcelona”. I said to Jesus, “Be ready, because maybe…”’
Nacer Chadli grabbed an equaliser in the 84th minute. And then a substitute, a player who had not started a Premier League game under Pochettino and who had been told he was too fat for the team, struck a 90th-minute winner, a free-kick which took a massive deflection off the wall.
‘That was the start of the history with Harry Kane!’ enthuses Pochettino, warming to his theme. ‘It was when we started to build this emotional link, which is always an amazing thing for the player and for us, too. It was a big turning point. For us, it was a massive boost. We felt the support of the club, the support of the chairman in this moment.
‘When people ask me, “What is the most important moment in your five years at Tottenham?”, it’s that goal of Harry Kane. It was the most important for us to help us establish our philosophy in the team and in the club, to help the club achieve everything that we have achieved since. In some moments you need this luck, this magic touch from someone to keep you going with a project. It was a key period.’
No 18 Harry Kane scores a deflected winner for Tottenham at Aston Villa in November 2014
It is hard to correlate his relaxed mood on this day to the fact next weekend he contemplates the match of his life. But then he has travelled far to be here. Murphy in Sante Fe province, where Pochettino grew up on a farm, is pretty much nothing more than a crossroads and a collection of buildings founded by a random Irishman 160 years ago.
He was discovered by Marcelo Bielsa at Newell’s Old Boys, a team from Rosario, two hours away. With a ground-breaking Bielsa side he won league titles and they qualified for the final of South America’s club championship, the Copa Libertadores. They lost the final: on penalties.
‘We would play Copa Libertadores or different cups that are so important in South America but the Champions League, all the people around the world is interested and stop to watch this event. That is the difference. For me, the most important two games in football are the final of the World Cup and the Champions League final. That’s it.
‘After those, the Super Bowl, maybe. You can compare, as global events: World Cup, Champions League, Super Bowl. Is there another?’
In Newell’s Old Boys’ run to the Libertadores final, he scored in the semi-final second leg at America de Cali in Colombia, which took the game to penalties. Newell’s prevailed 11-10 on penalties. Pochettino missed his penalty but referenced the game in the run-up to the second leg against Ajax.
Pochettino will be emotional on June 1 as Spurs face Liverpool in the Champions League final
‘What I learned is that football is [played within] a context of emotion,’ he says.
‘And the emotional level you arrive at for the final is going to be decisive, as to whether you’re going to have the capacity to win or to lose. It’s not tactics. It’s not physical. It’s about the emotion. How the emotions trigger your talent and quality and how you are going to deliver your job on the pitch. Now, as coach, I try still to learn and be open, to improve and to translate to the players that the emotions will be the trigger to express your talent on the pitch.
‘I think when you arrive in the first division in a club like Tottenham, it’s obvious you have talent. But then are you going to use that talent? (Are you) going to use 10 per cent or 90 per cent. That is emotion: your emotion to manage your talent. It’s a point we’re talking about a lot to try to help the players to express their talent on the pitch. To get even more out of them.’
Pochettino is well into his stride now. Despite his first English lesson seven years ago being a complete disaster, he communicates incredibly fluently. And, intentionally or not, he echoes the words of Danny Blanchflower: that the game is about glory.
‘Today Tottenham is on another level. Tottenham five years ago was in a situation that was, “We are building the facilities, the training ground, the stadium”. After four years, we are now consistently in the Champions League and that was the dream for everyone.
‘Then we finished the stadium that is the best stadium in the world. But now it’s about the glory. The only way that the players and coaching staff can touch the glory is not by sleeping in the Lodge or playing in the best stadium in the world. It’s by winning titles. That is why after the semi-final, there was a lot of emotion in your body and mind. You helped that to happen.
Former central defender Pochettino has yet to win a trophy during his managerial career
‘When we talked about having the capacity to challenge for big titles like the Premier League and Champions League, we were right. Maybe people three or four or five years ago were saying, “Come on, Mauricio, it’s about winning one title. The Carabao Cup, the FA Cup. The club needs to win a title?” No. The club needs to challenge for big titles, the Premier League and the Champions League.
‘Look at the effect of being one of the teams that can win the Champions League. Do you think the fans think it is the same impact as winning the FA Cup or Carabao Cup?
‘Of course I would love to win the Carabao Cup or the FA Cup. But for Tottenham, the priority was to finish the stadium, to finish the training ground but now to show the world that we are a real contender for big things. But if you settle your objectives and dreams here… ’ he makes a hand gesture to indicate a level… ‘then maybe you arrive here… ’ and he gestures lower. ‘But if you settle them here… ’ and he reaches high above his head… ‘maybe you can achieve! And that was the mental game that we used here to challenge the players, to challenge the fans, to challenge you, too.
‘To challenge everyone to say, “Why is the objective to win the Carabao Cup if we are a club with the ambition, one day, to win the Champions League?” And of course that possibility has arrived before we foresaw. We are there. We need to work. And we are working not to play the Champions League and to be competitive. We are talking and working to win. Because I think the final is not about playing. It’s about winning.’
And if he does win?
He puffs his cheeks out and laughs again. ‘I’m going to cry for one week!’ he says. ‘One whole week crying!’
BOSS AIMS TO KEEP ALL HIS PLAYERS IN THE PICTURE
Mauricio Pochettino wants to break with convention at the Champions League final and insist that the pre-match photo includes the full 23-man squad.
The Tottenham manager hates that the starting XI alone usually appear in the iconic photo, when so often substitutes play the crucial role in games.
Pochettino won the Copa del Rey twice as a player with Espanyol, as part of the first 11 in 2000 and as a sub in 2006. ‘Always I was so upset, because the picture is the starting eleven and then, if you win the final, only those 11 players are going to be on the wall,’ he said.
‘Maybe some guy came from the bench, scored twice and was the hero. But in the history it’s only the starting XI and “Oh, that is the team that won the final.” I say: “F*** off!” What I want is all the players before the start of the game — 22 or 23 — in the picture on the pitch. That is the team that won or lost.
‘Not only 11. That is completely unfair.’
The Spurs starting XI pose for a team photo ahead of their semi-final second leg at Ajax