Tottenham’s manager had a first-hand glimpse of Diego’s rather erratic behaviour while at Newell’s Old Boys at the start of his career
On Saturday, Mauricio Pochettino will fulfil the dream of many a manager – leading his team out in a Champions League final.
The Tottenham boss has come a long way since taking his first steps in football in his native Argentina, which included an unforgettable experience rooming with the great Diego Maradona – and a bit-part role in one of the errant star’s most incredible outbursts.
Pochettino grew up in the tiny Santa Fe farming village of Murphy, which also counts Spurs’ reserve goalkeeper Paulo Gazzaniga among the 4,000 people that call it home – a ratio of one Champions League finalist per 2,000 inhabitants.
“It was a very small town and what I did every day was go to school and play football all day long with my friends. We didn’t have a TV in the house,” the manager explained to the BBC in a 2013 interview.
Eventually, the Pochettino family would splash out on a black and white set, which labourer father Hector would power by taking the battery off his tractor.
While as a child he was a fan of Avellaneda club Racing, it was at Newell’s Old Boys that the youngster received his break in football.
At 14, he was scouted by Marcelo Bielsa’s legendary right-hand man Jorge Griffa – responsible for discovering talents such as Gabriel Batistuta, Jorge Valdano, Maxi Rodriguez and Gabriel Heinze to name just a few players who sprang up from Santa Fe’s fertile footballing fields. Pochettino moved to Rosario, where he began working under El Loco in the Lepra’s youth divisions.
Bielsa was the man who gave final approval to the signing and travelled to Murphy in order to convince the teenager’s parents to let him move to Newell’s, while also taking the opportunity to have a good look at his potential star.
“One night, at one in the morning, he came to my house, knocked on the door and wanted to see a 13-year-old boy,” Pochettino (pictured below with the ponytail while Bielsa, on the far right, was Argentina coach) recalled to ESPN.
“He wanted to see my legs! At this time of the morning, he would have to be a little [crazy]… he had to make my parents dream.
“Then he said: ‘These legs look like those of a very good player.’ That was a good lie, no bad intentions. For me, he’s a person I will always admire. People call him ‘El Loco Bielsa’, but for me, he is not crazy at all.
“For me, he’s a genius. A person with charisma and a personality very different from us normal coaches, and that’s what makes him special.”
When Bielsa moved up to coach the first team in 1990, Pochettino already had two years of senior play under his belt.
With El Loco on the bench and Pochettino marshalling the defence Newell’s enjoyed one of the best spells in their history, winning two national league titles and reaching the final of the Copa Libertadores in 1992, where they lost out on penalties to a Sao Paulo team featuring future World Cup winners Cafu, Rai, Zetti and Muller.
That Libertadores campaign had actually begun with disaster, losing 6-0 to San Lorenzo at home. Incensed, the Newell’s barra brava hooligans made their way to Bielsa’s family home to protest – only to be greeted at the door with the coach brandishing a grenade.
“If you don’t leave now, I’ll pull the pin and throw,” he warned, before chasing the retreating thugs for several blocks, grenade in hand.
Bielsa opted to leave Newell’s for Mexico following defeat in the Copa final, but Pochettino stayed on. One year later, the arrival of Diego Maradona turned the world of Newell’s upside down.
The Argentine football legend, fresh from a fiery spell at Sevilla, chose to join the Rosario club to continue his comeback following a lengthy ban for cocaine consumption that forced him out of Napoli.
Over 40,000 fans turned out to watch his first training session in Lepra colours. And Pochettino was chosen to share a bedroom with Diego when Newell’s were on the road.
“It was incredible because I always had his photo on my bedroom wall,” the manager beamed when asked about the experience years later. “And then I was with him, it was tremendous.
“I remember my first night. I turned off the light and lay there trying to see if I could sleep. I couldn’t believe it, I thought I was dreaming, that it wasn’t real.”
Maradona’s time at Newell’s proved to be turbulent, marked by injuries, fall-outs with coaches and precious little time on the field. In total he would play just five games for the club, failing to score. Diego nevertheless stayed on through the start of 1994, participating in Newell’s summer pre-season plans in the beach resort of Mar del Plata.
As Pochettino can attest, though, life with the little genius was never predictable.
“We were all together in pre-season in Mar del Plata and the day before we had shared a room,” he explained. “That night, because he loves basketball, he had gone to see the League final. In the morning, when I woke up, he was not in his bed.”
The mystery of Diego’s whereabouts on February 2, 1994 would not be clarified until hours later.
“After breakfast we went to train and then we came back for lunch. Still nobody knew where Diego was,” Pochettino continued. “As we ate we watched the news on television: he was shooting at journalists in Buenos Aires, 400 kilometres from where we were!”
As Pochettino had slumbered the previous night, Maradona made his way back from Argentina’s Atlantic coast to his home in Moreno on the outskirts of Buenos Aires.
When he awoke to find a gaggle of reporters at his gates, Diego opened fire with an air rifle, wounding six members of the press while also turning the hose on those who still refused to leave. In 2002, he was given a suspended two-year prison sentence, with Maradona also ordered to pay damages to those injured in the melee.
Attacks on journalists aside, the Spurs boss’ love of his football idol and ex-room-mate has never faltered.
“I love football, it has always been my passion. And [my idol] will always be Diego Armando Maradona,” Pochettino told Sky Sports.
Now the boy from Murphy has achieved what neither Diego nor Bielsa ever could, taking part in the biggest game in European club football.
It has been a long journey from those early days in Rosario, sharing training sessions and hotel rooms with two of the game’s most eccentric, unique characters: but both men have played their part in turning Pochettino into the man and manager he is today.
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