Friday 23 August 2019

Tottenham players have been walking on hot coals ahead of Champions League final with Liverpool

Tottenham Hotspur players share a joke during a training session
Tottenham Hotspur players share a joke during a training session
Pochettino: ‘I have this spirit, like Che Guevara (pictured). I don’t know, I am a fighter’

Paul Hayward

When people talk of teams walking over hot coals to win things, they usually mean metaphorically. But ­Tottenham Hotspur really did. The embers sound like a doddle compared to the arrows.

An explanation. Ten days ago, ­Mauricio Pochettino, the Spurs manager, departed from the standard Champions League build-up. His aim: to harness the ­"universal energy" he says he has believed in "all my life". Set-piece ­practice and pattern of play were pushed aside for a day.

"People without fears don't exist," Pochettino says. "The difference is the people who tackle their fears, who cope with them, and achieve.

"The other people are those that freeze with fear. Successful people have the same fears as other people. It is just that they take them."

To the coals and the arrows, then. Taking their cue from Xesco Espar, a Barcelona handball coach and long-time friend of the Tottenham manager, ­Liverpool's opponents threw themselves into the kind of bonding exercise that might have produced a few unusual injury bulletins ahead of this Champions League final in Madrid.

Pochettino takes up the story: "We designed our strategy. One of the activities that we proposed with the players was to walk across hot coals, but before that, during two or three hours, we were preparing, (doing) team bonding. That (the firewalking) was a specific thing we did at Southampton during pre-season.

"We have a very good friend in ­Barcelona, he's a mental coach and he does things that can create good feelings and emotions, but of course our strategy was to work every day.


"And after we slept in the Lodge (the luxury facility at Tottenham's training ground). I think it will all help us to arrive in a good emotional and mental level for the game. When you have only one objective and you have three weeks to prepare, it's easier than when you play every three days."

These extra-curricular experiments are common in modern sport, but football tends to be more conservative, especially at elite level, where seriousness and fear of embarrassment prevail. But it was Pochettino's next disclosure that really jolted a small audience of reporters. "We broke the arrows," he said. You did what?

After some body language exercises, in which players told boring stories in an excited manner and exciting ones boringly (to demonstrate the power of demeanour, or presentation), Espar held arrows against a wall, which Pochettino's men had to walk into, using their windpipes as the point of contact with the tip.

"When you see the arrows, you think it's impossible how you are going to break them, you put them here, with the sharp tip against your throat and then bang, you break the arrow," Pochettino says. "Breaking the arrow against my throat? 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. That is the most important thing. To be focused, to be proactive. This is the key in football."

A Spurs team now imbued with spirit hope to carry this kind of fearlessness into the biggest club game of their lives. Liverpool already knew Tottenham were a tight bunch. Now they can also see how hard Pochettino works at binding them into a single fighting force.

"And then football is football. We can win or we cannot win," Pochettino says. "But I think we are going to arrive in a perfect condition and of course the most important thing is they are enjoying these three weeks. 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 the final. I think it's been an amazing time to share all together."

Espar was first over the coals, with Pochettino, as officer class, next. "It was nice to see the reaction of the players," he says. "The character and the personality of them. Sometimes you see them on the pitch, doing some things, and then outside, doing some activities, maybe they are more cautious or more brave. You say, 'Oh, this guy is brave. He's ready to work'. And maybe another, the one you believe is going to be the first, he isn't."

On "universal energy" Pochettino ­posits: "It's a superior energy that you can connect with, if you are open, if you have opened your mind. With some ­strategies, you can connect with this energy, that is around us, that nearly touches you, but if you are not open to receive this energy, you cannot feel it.

"I think all these strategies (during the build-up to Madrid) were to try to help us, the team, connect with this energy. This energy that is so powerful. That makes you feel invincible. It's all my life that I've felt it.

"A small example was when I was a kid, one night, 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. It's difficult to explain, but I've always felt that energy was with me. I don't know who taught me about it. It's just inside me."

Pochettino draws a circle with his hands to illustrate a force that certainly seemed to be with him in Amsterdam when Ajax were crushed by a Lucas Moura hat-trick.

He says: "I believe in destiny. Some people say, 'No, you create your destiny'. Of course. You create your destiny with your behaviour, working hard, believing, and faith."

From this, he claims, Spurs were able to overcome hopeless odds at Ajax: "It's because every day you work and you settle your habits here. That is why when you are under stress, you are going to have the tools to perform in the best way."

Pochettino is a thinker, but a man of action, too. In his mind the two are indivisible. At Espanyol, the fans made him their Che Guevara, with T-shirts and a chant: "Po-CHE."

Vendors sell the same T-shirts on ­Tottenham High Road for £10 (€11).

Pochettino examines photos of those garments and says: "F****** hell. My face, like this, with the beret, it's unbelievable, unbelievable, I was so proud."

Not that he is calling for worldwide revolution: "But it's true, I am a little bit romantic. And I have this spirit, like Che Guevara. I don't know, I am a fighter."

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