A four-hour drive west of Buenos Aires lies the quiet town of Murphy in the Santa Fe province of Argentina.
Surrounded by flat fields as far as the eye can see, it feels like a gated community plonked on a moonscape. Houses are neatly spaced apart along a dozen or so streets with a couple of shops and a lonely bar.
It is an unremarkable place in nearly every sense save for the proportion of professional footballers it produces from its population of 4,000.
A coach at Union y Cultura, the town’s football club, lists more than two dozen players who have played professionally in Europe which, he proudly informs me, is far more than some nearby cities have produced. Yet there is no doubt about the identity of their proudest son.
Mauricio Pochettino was born in Murphy in 1972. He lived there until he was 14 when he signed for Newell’s Old Boys. Pochettino went on to represent Argentina 20 times and captained Paris St-Germain as well as Espanyol, yet it is as manager of Tottenham Hotspur that he is making his greatest impact.
In the past two seasons, Spurs have accumulated more points, scored more goals and conceded fewer than any other team in the Premier League.
Tottenham’s success is not built on rampant spending like the majority of their rivals but the values Pochettino learnt growing up in Murphy.
Pochettino’s parents, Hector and Amalia, still live in the town and make The Daily Telegraph welcome into their home. The sweet-natured Amalia brews some traditional maté, a bitter herbal tea, and then rushes off to find dozens of photographs documenting various stages of Pochettino’s career. Hector sports a sterner expression but as he discusses his son’s achievements his chest swells with an unmistakable pride.
“The football club makes you a good player but if you don’t have a good behaviour then that means nothing,” Hector said. “When I went to Barcelona [when Pochettino was at Espaynol] I told people who my son was and they said he is a really good person. That is the most important thing to me.”
The town of Murphy
The Pochettino family originally came to Argentina from Italy in 1854. Within a generation, they had settled in the farming town of Murphy, founded by an Irish immigrant, John James Murphy. Pochettino’s great-grandfather was the Sheriff of Murphy.
The family continued to work the land when Pochettino was growing up. Life was simple. There were no telephones so, when they needed help from a neighbouring farm, they would run a flag up a pole. “Life in this town is calm,” Hector said. “Not a lot happens. Since it was a small town, everyone here is like a family. We take care of each other.”
Pochettino and his brother would pitch in on the farm whenever they could. “When they were not in the school, they were helping out on the farm,” Hector said. “It was not like a job, it was a hobby for them. Mauricio was using a tractor when he was 12-13. Since he saw that we were using a tractor, he also wanted to drive it. He wanted to know every detail.”
Football quickly overtook tractors as Pochettino’s obsession. Pochettino’s first footballing memory is of watching Argentina win the 1978 World Cup on a black and white television powered by a tractor battery. From the age of seven, he was playing with his older brother at every possible opportunity.
“It was my only toy, a football, and in my head it was always ‘play football, play football, play football’,” Pochettino said in an interview last year. Amalia points to the glass gates in their garden that frequently had to be replaced. “Even with his brother he hated to lose,” Hector said. “We played football in the countryside late in the afternoon and those are really special memories. We played a match while my wife prepared dinner, then we ate, had a bath and then go to sleep.”
Pochettino was soon playing at Union y Cultura under a coach, Ceferino Cossio, who seemed to be a sort of footballing Pied Piper. “He took the bike and in the basket he put the football and all the children followed him to the club,” Hector said. Cossio, who passed away three years ago, had two core beliefs for Union: breed good people and play good football, a philosophy that endures today.
At 13 he towered over his peers
Amalia points to a team photo where a 13-year-old Pochettino towers over his peers. Within a year he was playing alongside his brother, Javier, in a regional league against fully grown men. Argentina’s big clubs started paying attention. Rosario Central were poised to offer Pochettino a contract before one night, well after midnight, there came a knock at the door. Jorge Griffa and Marcelo Bielsa, a pair of academy coaches at Newell’s, had travelled through the night after getting wind of this strapping defender.
With Pochettino fast asleep, they snuck into his bedroom where Bielsa is supposed to have exclaimed: “Those are the legs of a footballer.” It sounds apocryphal but according to his parents it is true, if a touch disturbing.
Pochettino duly signed for Newell’s and moved to Rosario. “The coordinator from Rosario Central got very angry with me,” Hector said. “They don’t even talk to me anymore. Even now.”
Hector describes Griffa and Bielsa as Pochettino’s second family. The Newell’s academy, however, was far removed from the Premier League incarnations of million-pound contracts and luxury trimmings. Pochettino spoke of being cold and lonely as he went to sleep each night.
It was harder still for his parents who, without a phone, needed to take a four-hour round-trip bus journey just to speak to him. “We suffered, his mother and I,” Hector said. “The father of a player suffers more than the son himself.”
At 16, he became the youngest player to sign a senior contract with Newell’s and he quickly established himself in the first team, first as a midfielder and then as a central defender, where he would remain for the rest of his career.
Pochettino was among several teenagers promoted by Bielsa, now the manager, to the first team to astounding success. Newell’s won the Argentinian title in 1991 and lost the Copa Libertadores final on penalties the following season.
It is not hard to spot the similarities with the current Tottenham team. “Maybe I can see myself in every single young player because, in my period, my manager or head coach always believed in the youngsters,” Pochettino said recently. There are several other parallels with Bielsa, who imposed a high-tempo, high-pressing tactic that required tremendous fitness levels from every player. Anything less than total dedication was unacceptable.
Studying the Opposition
“Playing for Bielsa is like going to school,” Hector said. “They had to read all the newspapers on Monday to study their opponents on Sunday. During that week you have to give a presentation on the profile of your opposite number: his strengths and weaknesses and his characteristics.”
The habit of constant studying became ingrained. Pochettino took a masters in business management after his playing career finished in 2006 and started managing Espanyol’s women’s side while taking his coaching badges.
The prodigious work ethic also stuck. He tends to arrive at Tottenham’s training ground at 7am, head home when it is dark and then watch whatever game is being televised.
“He is intense,” Hector said. “He has no problem with working hard and he expects that of people around him.” When he arrived as Southampton manager in January 2013 after four seasons in charge of Espanyol, he instigated triple training sessions, which led midfielder Jack Cork to say you need “two hearts” to play under Pochettino.
There is a ruthless streak
There is a ruthless streak, too. Those who fall foul of him, such as Andros Townsend, are quickly shown the door. Yet he also places great faith and support in those who are willing to follow these methods, nurturing the likes of Dele Alli, Harry Kane, Eric Dier and Danny Roseinto England internationals.
“Loyalty is the most important quality for him in other people,” Hector said. “The fundamental aspect for him is to be a good person. The word really has a lot of meaning for him. He has always lived his life that way. He can treat you like family but he expects that same loyalty in return.”
Both Hector and Amalia describe moving to the Premier League when Southampton were embroiled in a relegation scrap as his biggest challenge, especially as he was not fluent in English. “We asked ourselves how he will do there,” Hector said. The answer was 14th and eighth place in one and a half seasons at Southampton, followed by fifth, third and second place finishes at Tottenham. “He has faced different obstacles but he finds a way to overcome them,” Amalia said.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Pochettino does not court publicity or popularity. He does not have an agent and very rarely grants interviews. To many he is a closed book. Yet those who know him say his values and beliefs, shaped by growing up on a farm in a tiny outpost in Santa Fe, remain unchanged.
“There is a lot of money and pressure in football, but that has not changed who he is,” Hector said. “He is the same man, he still wants to win every game he plays, not because of money but because of who he is.
“That is his personality and the way he lives as I was when I was on the farm. We are a responsible family. Things can go good or bad. In all aspects of life, you can go up or down but the important thing is to deal with things calmly.
“If I had not worked on the land – if I was a carpenter – then I would still live the same way and have the same values to give to my children.”