Mauricio Pochettino jabs a finger at the softest part of his neck, just below his Adam’s apple, as he explains how his players have been preparing for the biggest game in Tottenham’s history.
‘You put them here,’ he says. ‘The sharp tip against your throat and then ‘bang’ you break the arrow. You think it’s impossible, how are you going to break them? You say “no, come on, I am going to kill myself”.
‘But the most important thing is to learn how you can prepare your mind. To be focused. To be proactive. This is the key in football.’
Mauricio Pochettino (centre, back) has revealed how he has prepared his team for Saturday
The Tottenham boss has focused on his players both physically and mentally for the big game
With the rare luxury of three weeks to prepare for Saturday night, when the eyes of the world will be upon Spurs in Madrid’s Metropolitano Stadium, Pochettino has devoted 45 minutes a day to working on the minds of his players. When he thought they were ready, he turned to his old friend Xesco Espar, a handball coach turned motivational guru from Barcelona.
The squad gathered at their training base near Enfield and listened as Espar developed his theme with storytelling and body language exercises before unleashing the show-stoppers.
He held an arrow, its tip pressed against the skin of each player and its end against the wall, and persuaded the player to walk towards the wall, leaning gently into the arrowhead, applying enough pressure to bend and snap the shaft.
Aspar then led the way into his firewalk, barefoot across the burning coals, closely followed by Pochettino, who took care not to identify those players who flinched.
‘It was nice to see the reaction,’ says the Spurs boss. ‘To see their character and personality. You see them on the pitch and outside, doing another activity, maybe they are more cautious or more brave.
‘You say, “Oh, this guy is brave, he’s ready to work”, and maybe another who you believe is going to be the first, he isn’t. All of them were unbelievably involved and they enjoyed it a lot. And of course they were all very brave.’
Pochettino asked his players to stay overnight at the lodge at the training ground and embrace the collective experience.
With the help of a motivational guru, Pochettino (right) has looked to show off invincibility
Xesco Espar, a handball coach turned motivational guru, has been advising Tottenham
Spurs’ players watched as their manager walked over hot coals to show a lack of any fear
‘Your mind is powerful and only you set your limits,’ he adds. ‘And then football is football. We can win or not win but we are going to arrive in a perfect condition and they are enjoying these three weeks.
‘That is the most important thing. The journey. Of course, if we win it’s all going to be amazing but always they are going to remember these three weeks in the way that they prepared for the final.
‘I think it’s been an amazing time to share all together.’
It is a window into the mind of Pochettino and his faith in what he calls universal energy — a spiritual power he has felt connected to since he was a boy in Murphy, rural Argentina, and remains central to his ethos as a coach.
‘It is a superior energy,’ he says. ‘All my life I have felt it. You can connect with it if you are open but if you are not open you cannot feel it. All these strategies were to try to help the team connect with this energy — energy that is so powerful, that makes you feel invincible.
‘One thing that is important is when the competition arrives we have no fears. It is not that you won’t fear anything – people without fears don’t exist – the difference is the people who tackle their fears, cope with them and achieve. The other people are those that freeze with fear.’
He reached back to his childhood for an example. ‘One night, when I was a kid, I said, “Tomorrow I want to score three goals” and I was thinking that 15 minutes before I went to sleep. And then, the day after, I scored three goals. It’s a small thing but the biggest dreams are the same.’
Pochettino and his players are facing their biggest ever game in the Champions League final
A last-gasp goal away against Ajax in the semi-final from Lucas Moura sealed a spot in the final
Tottenham’s European campaign this season has the hallmarks of a team in tune with good vibrations.
It has been an unlikely tale of survival against the odds, of memorable late goals and scrapes of good fortune to avoid elimination – from the group stages against PSV, Inter and Barcelona to the injury-time winner in the second leg of the semi-final at Ajax.
‘Winning is all about details,’ said Pochettino. ‘Was it coincidence? Or was it because we found these details? How important is our behaviour between one thing happening and another?
‘I remember when there were all the problems. I have my memories. I said “Hey, come on, come on, still time to score”.’
He claps his hands as if transported back to the touchline in Amsterdam. ‘We never felt it was done – and it’s true that now it’s easy to say that because we scored with the last kick – but if you watch and watch and watch again we never give up.’
He has shown his players video clips of what they did right and what Ajax did wrong.
‘What if our behaviour had been different? Of course, you need luck. But the difference is we behaved well. And then we were rewarded. And it’s a good thing for the team to realise behaviour can affect the situation and be decisive during the game. I believe in destiny. But I believe you create your destiny with your behaviour, if you’re natural, spontaneous and genuine in all that you do.
‘I don’t believe in destiny, sitting here waiting for something to happen.’
It is Pochettino who summons Che Guevara into the conversation. ‘I am a little bit romantic,’ he says. ‘I have this spirit, like Che Guevara. I am a fighter. In Espanyol, when we survived in our first season when I started my career, the fans created ‘Po-Che’. My face, like this with the beret, unbelievable. I was so proud.’
Pochettino is adamant that comebacks and narrow wins are not ‘coincidence’ for his players
He believes that their work behind the scenes has helped them control their own destiny
The matchday street traders on Tottenham High Road are already on to this idea, selling £10 T-shirts with Pochettino’s face superimposed on to the famous image of Guevara, icon of the Cuban Revolution and a stylised symbol of rebellion.
Both Argentinians overseas, fighting for what they believe to be a true cause. Against the odds. Both hopelessly romantic, in their own ways, even if it is absurd to stretch the comparison far. A Marxist revolutionary, killed in Bolivia in 1967 would have found little to celebrate in a sport awash at the top with billions.
‘I don’t want to mix politics,’ says Pochettino, perhaps landing on the same train of thought, but he rather likes the idea all the same. ‘It’s still unbelievable, OK.’
He truly feels he is fighting with the outsiders, the have-nots. And his troops have been in training with cold steel on their throats and fire at their feet to prepare the minds for one last fight this season. One that will go down in history if they emerge triumphant.
‘You win with Manchester City or Manchester United or another team and people assume this project is based on money,’ says the Spurs boss. ‘It’s not a criticism of this kind of project but if you spend a lot of money you must win — then if you win, it’s normal.
‘In Tottenham, no one expects. And if you build something special it’s going to be forever remembered. If we win the Champions League it’s going to be a massive example for football, for ever.’
The Tottenham boss likened himself to Che Guevara, the major icon of the Cuban Revolution
Victory for Tottenham in Madrid would be ‘a massive example’ in football, says Pochettino