The Beast reveals his lighter side
Brazilian Sandro happy to help Spurs' foreign recruits settle in, writes David Hytner
Sandro cringes at the memory. A matter of weeks into his Tottenham career he had pitched up at Stansted Airport for the team's Champions League trip to Werder Bremen. There was a problem. He was not registered to play nor was he booked on to the flight. The check-in attendant had no idea who he was.
"Yes, of course, I had to tell him my name," Sandro says, affecting a police mugshot pose. "Sandro? No, there's no Sandro here,' he says. Oh my God..."
The Brazil midfielder holds his head and laughs. Mime and uproariousness are central to him. "So I went home and I went to sleep," he continues. "The next day I trained with the young guys. It was an embarrassing episode but I don't take it too bad. I just laugh."
Sandro laughs again. A little more than three years on he is completely at home in London and at Tottenham, where he is the life and soul of the party. The Stansted stand-off occurred after the club's then manager, Harry Redknapp, had surprisingly excluded him from the European squad that he registered with Uefa but told him that he could come along to the ties.
The day before Bremen, though, the fitness coach told Sandro that he had to work at the training ground. Sandro asked Heurelho Gomes, his compatriot and unofficial minder in the early days, what he should do. The goalkeeper told him one thing; Sandro's interpreter then said another. Confusion reigned.
The story bears retelling because it illustrates the difficulties that an overseas arrival to the Premier League can face, particularly if he speaks little or no English. And here is the issue, according to Sandro, that cuts to the heart of Tottenham's slightly stuttering start to the domestic season.
Andre Villas-Boas's team play at Manchester City today, sitting one point clear of them and not too far from the very top. They have suffered only two really bad results – the home defeats to West Ham United and Newcastle United. There have hardly been dashes for the panic stations.
Yet there is the unmistakable sense that this is a team who have still to hit their stride. They have made light work of unfancied opponents in the Europa League but in the Premier League they have been damned by their travails in the final third. Nine goals in 11 matches (three of them penalties) have provided the headline item for the pessimists but the broader picture reveals a tendency to shoot from long range and the reluctance to commit numbers ahead of the ball.
The sale of Gareth Bale to Real Madrid in the summer helped to finance another Villas-Boas squad overhaul, with £110.5m being committed on seven overseas players, and the simple fact is that they have needed time to acclimatise both on and off the pitch.
Understanding and those instinctive working relationships that underpin the most successful teams cannot be forged overnight.
"It's difficult when new players come and it's not like this," Sandro says, clicking his fingers, "for everyone to understand what the new players want. I don't know, no one knows. This takes time to understand in training and games. It's not easy for players coming from another country.
"In the Brazilian league, where I came from, the style is slower whereas here, it's so fast and strong. I had to learn."
Where Gomes helped him, Sandro has endeavoured to assist another Brazilian, Paulinho, the Spaniard Roberto Soldado and the Argentinian Erik Lamela. The trio cost a combined £73m and are Tottenham's most expensive ever signings.
But while the attack-minded midfielder Paulinho has impressed, the striker Soldado has only flickered and the winger Lamela has yet to start a league fixture, which is remarkable given his club-record £30m price tag.
Villas-Boas said recently that Lamela's lack of English had hindered his adaptation.
"It's off-the-field also," Sandro says. "Your family is not here, your friends are not here. I felt at home only after six months, one year. Some players don't speak English and it's harder because everyone speaks and they can't say anything.
"Erik, Paulinho and Soldado have asked for advice. I just say, 'Don't worry, come with me.' I say, 'Start to laugh. If you don't understand, just laugh.' Paulinho has more experience, he plays a lot on the national team and he's a midfielder whereas Lamela has to understand more tactical [instructions].
"But it's starting to come for Lamela. He likes to play with the ball close to him, to dribble. You do not put the ball away from him, like Azza [Aaron Lennon]. You pass to him. He can be a big player. He just needs games and confidence. With Soldado, sometimes we have to come to help him, to support him. We have to play closer to him."
Sandro turned around his fortunes as he learned the language and started to play more regularly. It is not rocket science. His towering Champions League performances against Milan in 2011, towards the end of his debut season, gave him confidence. The club's other summer signings – Vlad Chiriches, Christian Eriksen, Etienne Capoue and Nacer Chadli – hope to make similar strides in the coming months.
Sandro's longer-term goal is to win selection to Luiz Felipe Scolari's Selecao for the World Cup in Brazil but, for now, the focus is trained on City. The 24-year-old is known as The Beast, which chimes with his larger-than-life personality and he has a nice line in fighting talk.
Yaya Toure, his muscular opponent in the City midfield? "Let's go, I'm ready," Sandro says, flexing his biceps like a prize-fighter. And, surely, he cannot like adversaries that are Argentinian, like Sergio Aguero? "No. Oh my God ... this game!" he adds, overwhelmed by the anticipation.
After City, Manchester United visit White Hart Lane next Sunday. It is a defining week for Tottenham but Sandro had a warning. "We have had time to understand now," he says, with regard to the club's summer signings.
"It's time to go."