Mauricio Pochettino talks about his life growing up on the farm in Argentina before becoming a top world class football manager.
From farm boy to the most sought after manager in world football.
Jorge Griffa is holding court in his elegant Buenos Aires apartment in the upmarket district of Recoleta. The 83-year-old is an icon of Argentinian football and his office is a shrine to his professional life.
Pride of place is the photo of the 1959 Argentina team in which he played who won the Copa America, but the reverence for Griffa doesn’t principally stem from his playing career. Rather, he was the original super scout.
Generations of Argentinian football superstars, such as Gabriel Batistuta, Carlos Tevez and Jorge Valdano, owe their start in the game to Griffa. In the 1980s, with another football visionary Marcelo Bielsa — now at Leeds United — he set about transforming his local club, Newell’s Old Boys, in the city of Rosario, 200 miles north-west of Buenos Aires.
Griffa, the academy director, and Bielsa, the youth-team coach, would tour the hinterland of Rosario, the endless acres of flat Argentine pampas, scouring the remote villages for talent. Which is how in 1986 they came to be near Murphy, a remote community named after Irish migrant John James Murphy in the 1870s, and where Hector Pochettino, father of Mauricio, ran a cattle farm.
‘We went to Santa Isabel, a small town near Venado Tuerto,’ says Griffa. ‘We were giving a coaching course and someone mentioned a boy, Pochettino, who was about to sign for Rosario Central [local rivals of Newell’s Old Boys].
‘Bielsa asked me about heading back to Rosario [as it was late by now] and I said: “We are not going to Rosario, we are going to Murphy, where this Pochettino guy lives. We’ll see if he’s already signed for Rosario Central”.
‘We arrived at their house at 2 o’clock in the morning. I knocked at the windows, Mauricio’s mother answered and recognised me. We got in, I started to talk about soya beans and other crops, which were not part my interest at all.’
Eventually they got round to the point of their visit. Griffa confirms that they really did ask Pochettino’s parents if they could view the sleeping 14-year-old Mauricio in his bedroom and, upon seeing him, did indeed exclaim: ‘What legs! A footballer’s legs!’
They weren’t wrong about the innate footballing ability. What they couldn’t know was the sleeping teenager would venture from the backwaters of Murphy and become the most desired coach in world football.
Having managed Tottenham since May 2014, Real Madrid and Manchester United are now fighting for his services. Many believe United wouldn’t have appointed an interim manager this past week in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer without an indication Pochettino will come next summer.
Long feted by Sir Alex Ferguson and now, it seems, United’s executive chairman Ed Woodward, his courage in playing attacking, attractive football that fits an English model and promoting youth makes him eminently more qualified for the job than any of Sir Alex’s successors.
Griffa and Bielsa must have done something right that night. Somehow, they persuaded Pochettino’s parents, Hector and Amalia, to allow him to play for Newell’s Old Boys in a tournament at Mar de la Plata, some 400 miles away on the coast.
Newell’s Old Boys
‘The team were champions,’ says Griffa. ‘And his father came three days later, with an envelope and told me: “You’ve earned it”. It contained Mauricio’s transfer papers.’
So, aged 14, Pochettino left behind the family home and farmyard kick-abouts with his brothers, Martin and Javier, and memories of watching Argentina’s 1978 World Cup win on a small black-and-white TV powered by a tractor battery.
He headed 100 miles to Rosario, home of Newell’s Old Boys.
Rosario is a largely industrial city on the mighty Parana River, which flows into the River Plate. It was once the main arterial route for 19th century migrants who headed this way for a new life, like Pochettino’s great grandfather, who came this way from Piedmont, Italy, in 1854.
At Newell’s Old Boys, Mauricio joined Griffa’s burgeoning youth academy. There he met Miki D’Agostino, who would become a lifelong friend and is now one of his assistants at Tottenham.
Roberto Sensini, a team-mate of Pochettino’s at the 2002 World Cup finals and at Newell’s Old Boys, trod the same path: an out-of-town boy who moved to the bare, makeshift hostel situated under the main stand of the club’s stadium, located in Rosario’s central municipal park, where the trainees lived
Sensini recalls: ‘We slept on beds made of cement with thin mattresses. There was a fridge that was locked during the nights to stop us grabbing food. It was either very cold or very hot! There was no air-conditioning or heating at all.’ Sometimes, though, Griffa would treat them, bringing a slaughtered cow from his own farm and cooking them a barbecue.
Pochettino says: ‘We lived underneath one of the stands… one big room with screens that divided the whole thing up. That’s where we all slept, like one big bedroom. There were loads of us sharing in that accommodation, 25-30 young players. It was hard in the sense that I was away from my family, the usual stuff. I had to study at night.
‘I can recall quite a few things that weren’t easy but something kept you going: passion for football and motivation to play. That papered over all those other little problems that happened to you as a 14-year-old kid.’
At 16, Pochettino was offered professional terms, although he kept studying at agricultural college to follow his father. Then at 17 he made his debut for a Newell’s team who had just won their first league title in 14 years and reached the final of the Copa Libertadores, South America’s equivalent of the Champions League
At Newell’s, they still remember his first training session with the senior team. Pochettino was 17 and up against one of the most senior professionals, Tata Martino, 10 years older and who would go on to manage Barcelona.
Uncompromising and committed as he was, Pochettino took Martino out in a challenge. Pochettino tells the story in his book, Brave New World.
‘He [Tata] turned around and said to me, “Kid, I’m going to kill you”. The coach shouted, “How could you do that to Martino?”. “Sorry, sorry,” I responded. Tata said, “I don’t want to see you within three metres of me.”
Sensini watched on amused and impressed. ‘It’s true, he made this tough tackle on Tata and there were angry words, but it’s part of football, nothing serious.
‘The episode showed Mauricio’s character, because the usual situation is that the old player treats the younger one with some rudeness, but Mauricio is very easy to talk to, transparent, with good values. We call them ‘campechanos’ — good natured, down to earth.’
Whatever, coach Jose Yudica was impressed and soon promoted Pochettino to the first team. The real gear change for Pochettino at Newell’s came in 1990, when Bielsa was promoted to first-team coach.
Playing a 3-4-3 and a unique pressing style which will now be familiar to Spurs fans (and influenced Pep Guardiola), Bielsa led the team to another league title and another Copa Libertadores final.
Griffa says: ‘When Bielsa took the first team job at Newell’s, he told me we had to buy two central defenders. I told him: “You have them in house — Fernando Gamboa and Pochettino”’.
Those two would form the centre-half partnership for Bielsa’s team. Pochettino still cites this period of his life and the faith shown in him by Yudica, Griffa and Bielsa as his inspiration for giving young players a chance.
‘It was a team that left its mark in Newell’s history,’ says Sensini. ‘Mauricio always talked to his team-mates with authority and in clear terms. Mauricio has learned from many coaches, but Bielsa was a man that left his mark on him.’
Bielsa would feature again in Pochettino’s career, when he moved to Spain to play for Espanyol. This time, however, his old coach reduced him to tears, accusing him of losing the drive he had shown as a young player at Newell’s and slipping into a comfort zone.
‘I’ve never felt so embarrassed,’ writes Pochettino in his book. ‘Everything he said was right. I’d been blinded, trapped in my own world.’
Bielsa forgave him and when he moved on to be Argentina coach Pochettino was in the starting XI at the 2002 World Cup, though he is best remembered for tripping Michael Owen in England’s 1-0 win.
‘For sure it was a dive,’ is Pochettino’s not entirely inaccurate memory of the incident. His second playing spell at Espanyol — he played at Paris Saint-Germain and Bordeaux in between — came to an end in 2006.
By then, he had settled in Barcelona and taken his coaching badges in Spain with his former Espanyol team-mate and goalkeeper, Toni Jimenez, now Tottenham goalkeeping coach – but a coaching job didn’t come until 2009, when Espanyol were desperate and in relegation trouble.
Early on in the job, he was spotted making a pilgrimage to the shrine of the Virgin Mary at the top of the mountain of Montserrat outside Barcelona.
A non-practising Catholic, he was actually there to pray for his mother, Amalia, who had breast cancer and thankfully made a full recovery, but local media naturally dubbed Espanyol’s subsequent escape from relegation as a miracle attributable to the Virgin.
It was while coaching Espanyol he met Jesus Perez, now his assistant and the man who sits alongside him at press conferences, on whom he relied as an English translator early on.
Yet, Pochettino hadn’t been sure about his appointment initially. Perez had been recruited by a sporting director who Pochettino suspected of trying to undermine him, but when their video analyst walked out to join Barca, Perez was co-opted to his team.
Now he is probably the most influential person in Pochettino’s life, other than wife Karina. The tag team of Karina and Perez persuaded Pochettino to take the risk of joining Southampton in 2013.
Perez is also a university-educated physiologist, and accounts for Pochettino’s teams being among the fittest in football. Those who watch training at Spurs say: ‘He works their b******* off them.’
Pochettino trains players all season at full intensity: he believes that though there is an injury risk, it bears fruit after Christmas, which is borne out by performances.
Perez is the principal link man between team and manager but the quartet are all part of Team Pochettino and will be seen at Spurs Lodge huddled in a corner, sipping mate, the Argentine infusion drink skilfully prepared by Jimenez.
‘The staff he has — Jesus, Miki and Toni — are incredibly close,’ says Ossie Ardiles, Spurs’ other favourite Argentine.
‘He makes everyone at the club happy from top to bottom,’ says Ardiles. ‘You can feel the camaraderie and the atmosphere. Very, very few times in my life have I experienced something like that. And when I have, it’s when things have been very successful.’
When Ricky Villa is in town, Ardiles will take his old friend and fellow Spurs icon to the training ground for lunch with Pochettino.
Villa says: ‘Mauricio has the spirit of an amateur, by which I mean every day he says to the players: ‘Forget about money, play from your heart’. I know everyone talks about winning [trophies] if you are a manager, but he improves every player he works with. For me that is the main point of a manager.’
Only belatedly has Argentina appreciated his talent. He left aged 22 and never played in the capital.
‘Maybe in Rosario he was a big name but not in Buenos Aires, the big city of football,’ says Villa. ‘Cordoba and Rosario are secondary.’ But now everyone is waking up to the talent of the farm boy.
I wouldn’t change him for any manager in the world,’ says Ardiles. ‘He gets better and better. What he’s doing this season is fantastic. I can’t speak highly enough of him. Whenever people are nervous [about results], I always say we can’t possibly have a better manager than him.
‘He’s very committed. Last season, people were talking about him going to Manchester United, to Barcelona, to Real Madrid, the Argentina national team.
‘He is a little bit tired of all the time saying the same things. What can I say? He’s very happy at the club and I hope he continues for a long time.’
Ardiles’ only beef is that Pochettino and Villa sometimes make him feel left out. Villa, like Pochettino’s father, runs a ranch.
‘I am a city boy, they are farmers,’ says Ardiles. ‘They talk a lot about horses and cows and I don’t have a clue.’ Right now, Pochettino may be the world’s most valuable farmer.