Mauricio Pochettino says his mother uses the word “llorona” to describe her son’s sensitive emotional disposition - translated literally it means someone who cries a lot, and were it not coming from a loved one it could be interpreted as a crueller shade of nickname.
“My mum,” Pochettino explains, “says I am like her. She says, ‘He’s happy? He cries. He’s sad? He cries’. Come on - stop crying! My brothers are different, more like my dad who is stronger. I am strong but very emotional and I cry. I can be driving 20 minutes home to Barnet listening to music that connects to some moment in my life, and I start [to cry]. When I arrive home my wife says: ‘What happened?’ I tell her the music connected me [to a moment in my life] 30 years ago in Argentina and she will say, ‘You’re crazy!’”
At the end of the Champions League semi-final in Amsterdam this month, he was off again, celebrating without a thought to how he might have looked, oblivious to the television cameras, his tie askew, his nose red and the tears flowing. It is the same when he watches films he says, and were Tottenham Hotspur to beat Liverpool in the club’s first ever Champions League final in Madrid on Saturday then who knows when he might stop.
“One week crying,” jokes Pochettino this week at the club’s training ground. It has been an astonishing transformation of the club in five years, to this point which is arguably the single biggest one-off match in Spurs’ history. The 1961 FA Cup final that sealed their domestic treble that year, in an era when the old Cup was worth more, might be a contender, after that the 1984 Uefa Cup final, but in terms of the modern game then it has never been as big as this.
Pochettino goes back to his early days at the club in November 2014 when Spurs found themselves 13th in the Premier League one Sunday and one goal down to Aston Villa with six minutes remaining. Pochettino recalls how he turned to his three assistants and suggested that all four might be on borrowed time. “For Tottenham, and for our ambition, it was like: ‘What the f--- are we doing?’” he says. “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’.”
Nacer Chadli scored the equaliser, Harry Kane struck a deflected free-kick to win it and from then on Pochettino has scarcely looked back. In recent weeks he has talked in riddles about his future, asking what the club’s realistic ambitions are for the next five years, and posing the question as to whether he will be part of it. This week he was clearer about what he sees as the objectives, and in doing so addressed that thorny old question of trophies.
Pochettino has never won one as a manager. One of his predecessors, Juande Ramos landed a League Cup in 2008 but it is not League Cups, Pochettino says, that change the destiny of a club. “Maybe people five years ago were saying: ‘Come on, Mauricio, it’s about winning one title. The Carabao Cup, the FA Cup … the Catalunya Cup! The club needs to win a title.’ No. The club needs to challenge for big titles, to challenge for the Premier League and the Champions League. Look at the effect of being in the final; the impact of being in the quarter-final or semi-final or 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. And if I am in a club like, I don’t know, Manchester United or Real Madrid, you think, ‘Yes, maybe we can win the Carabao Cup’. But for Tottenham, the priority was to finish the stadium, to finish the training ground and now to show in England, Europe and the world that we are a real contender for big things.”
Now training ground and stadium are finished, he says “It’s about touching the glory”. “The only way that the players and coaching staff can touch the glory is not by sleeping in the lodge [the new hotel facilities at the training ground] or playing in the best stadium in the world. It’s by winning titles.”
He was 20 years old when he played for Newell’s Old Boys in the 1992 Copa Libertadores final, the South American Champions League equivalent. Newell’s had come through an epic 11-10 penalty shoot-out in the semi-final against America Cali of Colombia. Over two legs in the final against Sao Paulo they eventually lost on penalties and the legacy of those games is strong for Pochettino.
“What I learn is that football is in the context of the emotional state you arrive in for the final. Your emotional level is going to decisive and 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 emotion triggers your talent and quality and how you are going to deliver your job on the pitch. That is what I learned from this semi-final and final. As a coach I try to learn and improve and to tell the players that football is played in the context of emotions.
“If you play at a club like Tottenham it’s obvious you have talent. But are you going to use that talent at ten per cent or 90 per cent? That is [dictated by] emotion. Your emotion to manage your talent. And that is very complicated … we’re talking about a lot to try to help the player to express their talent on the pitch better. To get even more out of them.”
The fitness or otherwise of Kane, as well as that of Harry Winks and Jan Vertonghen, will be critical for Pochettino and he is aware that there are some big decisions coming up in terms of his team selection. It is unthinkable that a player like Kane, so fundamental to the rise of Spurs under Pochettino should be missing on a night like this, but by the same token his manager is selecting a team for one game on one evening. His leading goalscorer has been out for six weeks.
“You know very well that if you win, football is fantastic, if not, you are going to kill me,” Pochettino says. “But it’s not a good or bad decision, it’s only a decision. I understand if we win: fantastic decision. If we lose: s--- decision.”
There is one thing he can influence for certain. When the Espanyol side he played in won the 2000 Copa del Rey final against Atletico Madrid the picture taken before the game was, as convention dictates, just the XI that started. “That upset me,” he says, “because maybe some guy came from the bench, scored twice and was the hero. But in the history it’s only the starting XI and we are all, ‘Oh, that is the team that won the final’. I say, ‘**** off’. What I want is all 23 players before the start of the game in the picture on the pitch - and that is the team that won or lost.”
Six years later, when Espanyol reached the final again, he was a substitute but more influential and insisted the whole squad be part of that picture. Come what may on Saturday in Madrid he wants the credit shared. “When I was a player I always fought with the organisation and the club to say, ‘Hey, I don’t want the XI, I want the 25’. And it’s the same now I’m a manager.”