Ladies and gentlemen, may we present the Canis Lupus.
In French, Mauricio Pochettino’s working language at Paris Saint-Germain these days, it would be Le Loup. In his native Spanish, El Lobo. Back in England, where in his last post he took Tottenham Hotspur to the final of the Champions League, we would know the Latin Canis Lupus as Wolf.
You may fear the legend or admire the smart tenacity of this voracious, carnivorous beast. Or you may never have given much thought to them beyond the legend of Romulus and Remus being raised by a she-wolf and founding ancient Rome. Or Rudyard Kipling’s Mowgli being cast into the jungle on the orders of wolf pack leader Akela to avoid the menace of Shere Khan, the tiger. Wolverhampton Wanderers fans, you get a special pass here for thinking about Wolves most of your waking hours.
The fact is that Europe’s wolf population is currently on the rise and Canis Lupus’s place in our cultural ideas is variously represented by Red Riding Hood, An American Werewolf in London, Harry Potter’s Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher Remus Lupin, Dances with Wolves or Peter and the Wolf. Come to think of it, they’re everywhere – an ultra-powerful image, omnipresent across both modern and ancient civilisations.
All of which is relevant because Canis Lupus – with all its legend, natural menace and ability to hunt successfully in packs – helps cut right to the core of Pochettino’s philosophy when it comes to how his footballers should act, think and unite towards their ultimate survival and dominance. We’ll let Mauricio explain.
“From birth, instinctively, football players are wolves. I mean those instincts that originate from talent, that are present in your DNA, in your perceptions. I will always think of footballers as wolves, as long as I don’t see something that makes me lose this image of them. In my mind I always see a wolf’s face, not a dog’s face.
“But as they develop and transform within football, which nowadays is often a banal business world – because of people who think football is simply an ordinary, unimportant business – that can make footballers lose, let’s say, those animal instincts.
“In society, the current way of life around the world, everybody tries to tame us. They want us to follow what they say. It can lead to a wolf becoming tame and then it becomes a dog, right? That’s more my metaphor. I use it because I think football players mustn’t fall into that trap of following the herd. Of being tamed.”
Colourful images but… persuasive. The footballer who can sniff out opportunities in adversity, who is equally effective in a pack as when isolated, who bristles with the aggression needed to dominate – but only when required. The footballer who cows, and renders supine, lesser opponents, and who others are happy to follow with blind allegiance – well, the market demands a pretty penny for just such talents.
Beyond a love of the lupine, Pochettino believes that any coach trying to maximise the mercurial gifts that he or she is (ironically enough) paid handsomely to ‘bring to heel’ must avoid taking their efforts too far. It’s imperative that the coach instils rules, insists on order and puts different units of their team in harness. But they mustn’t tighten the leash too remorselessly.
“Sometimes I have long chats with my group of players – in the original case of ‘the wolf and the dog’, it was at Spurs. It was a really nice conversation to have. A bit like your school teacher or your professors at university. In this case, when a coach asks a question to a group of players, there’s always a point when they’re afraid of answering. However, it’s precisely in that open-dialogue environment that mutual understanding can arise between the coaching staff and the players, where discussions and ideas come up and persist over time so that you always keep them in mind to use.
“Particularly in helping players develop their skills and have a much brighter future than they could have had otherwise. It’s imperative they hold onto a high percentage of what was central to them when they began playing football. They play because they’re wolves, they play instinctively, they play because of their talent, their perception. And often it’s our duty, the coaches’ duty, not to tame that wolf and transform it into a domesticated dog.
“Our responsibility is to bring out those basic instincts which every footballer possesses. Those core, natural instincts can be forgotten because – as I often joke – it often seems that in this world football isn’t our priority. Football should be our priority. But many times we forget to appreciate having a ball.”
Of course, with Mauricio Pochettino – unquestionably wolf-like when he first emerged as a belligerent centre-half under Marcelo Bielsa at Newell’s Old Boys (yes, the club Lionel Messi loves), but now part poet, part philosopher, part brilliant football coach – next comes an illustrative anecdote. The day this man turns his hand to cinema, theatre or literature, Oscars, Tonys, Pulitzers and Golden Globes will follow.
So, talking of alluring spherical objects: “Once when Jorge Valdano came to visit me at Spurs’ training ground, he asked me why I had a football on the desk in my office,” says Pochettino, recalling a chat with the 1986 World Cup winner and former Real Madrid striker. “I told Jorge, ‘The ball connects us with footballers, with life, with values.’ I always say that football is full of emotions. A football triggers emotions so you must always keep it near. And a footballer should always be connected with that – be in touch with his true nature.