Mauricio Pochettino remembers old roommate, idol Diego Maradona, fondly
Mauricio Pochettino still struggles to find the right words in English. The Tottenham manager has been discussing the problem of signing players and competing with Spurs' wealthier English rivals, topics he has no difficulty articulating. But now he looks to his assistant and unofficial translator Jesus Perez for help.
"It's so difficult in English to express myself and my emotions," Pochettino says. He is thinking back to 1993, when he was a 21-year-old defender at Newell's Old Boys. That September, Newell's pulled off the biggest transfer coup in their history, signing national legend Diego Maradona, who had left Spanish club Sevilla three months earlier.
"I think I was one of the happiest people in the world when I met him for the first time," says Pochettino. "Because it was a dream come true, but more than a dream. I remember it always because I loved football and Maradona. But it was more than this."
The week before Maradona joined Newell's, Argentina were humiliated 5-0 by Colombia in World Cup qualifying, leading to a barrage of calls for the 32-year-old to return to the national team. He was greeted by 30,000 fans in Rosario, the central Argentinian town where Newell's play, and declared: "I'm going to be more realistic than ever, and I don't want to fool the people. We'll have to see if I can still make all those people happy."
For Maradona, who felt like "the 10,000th player in the world," the move was a chance to recover the form that had inspired Argentina's World Cup win of 1986 and earn a place at a fourth finals. For Pochettino, it was even more significant.
Like most Argentines, Pochettino -- who was not capped until 1999 -- had grown up idolising Maradona. On the wall of his childhood bedroom -- where, the story goes, Marcelo Bielsa had inspected the legs of a 14-year-old Pochettino in the dead of night and decided he was a footballer -- was a poster of Maradona.
Pochettino's dream took a surreal twist when he was told Maradona was his new roommate at Newell's. They shared a twin room, Pochettino sleeping inches from his idol.
"There was always a big picture on my wall where I sleep. Every day, every night, I saw him. One day I meet him and then one day I sleep with him! It's so difficult to express it. It's an emotional feeling for me," he says.
A few years earlier, in 1991, Maradona's high-life had finally caught up with him, and he left Napoli in disgrace after failing a drug test for cocaine amid investigations into his involvement in a Naples vice ring. He was banned from football for 15 months and returned to Argentina, where an arrest for possession of cocaine followed.
After his ban, Carlos Bilardo, who had managed Maradona at the '86 and '90 World Cups, gave him another chance at Sevilla, but he played just 26 times, scoring five goals, and left following a furious row with the manager. Newell's was another chance, but Maradona's sensational decline continued with an extraordinary incident in February 1994 that Pochettino has never forgotten.
"We were together in the room during preseason in [Argentine coastal town] Mar del Plata," explains Pochettino. "I remember one day he started shooting the journalists in Buenos Aires. The day before he was sleeping with me! He loved basketball and went to see it in Mar del Plata -- the final in the conference.
"And then, in the morning, I woke up and he wasn't in bed. I then go to breakfast, the manager asked about him, and I said, 'No, no, no, he didn't come back to the hotel.' After breakfast we went to training. Nobody knew about Diego, and at lunchtime it was breaking news on the television.... Diego shoots journalists in Buenos Aires! Four hundred kilometres away! He helped his image a little bit."
Maradona had returned to his Buenos Aires country home and fired an air gun at journalists while crouching behind his Mercedes. He injured four people, and years later was given a suspended jail sentence for assault. The incident was the last straw in a string of unprofessionalisms at Newell's, and the club promptly cut ties with him.
But the move had served its purpose for Maradona, who was included in the '94 World Cup squad, having helped Argentina to a playoff win over Australia shortly after joining Newell's. The tournament in the United States is best remembered for his crazed goal celebration against Greece and subsequent dismissal from the squad four days later for failing another drug test. He never played for Argentina again.
The slow decline and the scandal is not how Pochettino remembers Maradona, however. Five months of sharing a room showed Pochettino the real Maradona, and he will always remember his ex-teammate's character, even if he cannot fully do it justice in his third language.
"I always keep Diego in private in my mind. I love him. I love everything about him. I knew Maradona, the real Maradona," Pochettino says. "We see him on the pitch, and then there is his image. Outside it was crazy. But I promise you if he arrived here and opened the door, we'd all be in love with him.
"His energy, his personality -- and he's a person that when he's with you, he makes you feel the best. He's so careful about the people around him. I learned a lot from him. He's so careful about his people."
Dan is ESPN FC's Tottenham correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @Dan_KP.