Harry Kane wants to conquer the Premier League ... then the NFL
Tottenham's Harry Kane, the world's best striker, has his sights set on a career in the NFL. Who's to say he can't make it happen?
This is an ESPN FC feature.
They couldn't wait for Mondays at Larkswood Primary, in northeast London near the Essex countryside. Five or six local clubs played in the Premier League every year. After each weekend's games, the boys would come to school ready to argue about which of them was best. "You're going back and forth with each other whenever you pick up a good result," Harry Kane says. "But obviously at the time, Arsenal and Chelsea were stronger than Tottenham. Finishing higher, winning trophies."
In 2003, when Kane was 9, Arsenal placed second in the league and Chelsea fourth. The next season Arsenal won the title, with Chelsea right behind. The year after that, they switched places and Chelsea won.
Tottenham Hotspur? Keep looking down the table. Further down, past Fulham, past Charlton Athletic and if you've never heard of Charlton Athletic, well... that's the point. Both of those London clubs finished ahead of Spurs in 2003, and it was no aberration. The following season, they did it again. Still, Kane stayed steadfast, even when he briefly played in Arsenal's youth program. You pick a team when you're small, he explains, and often for no logical reason. If you're loyal and determined, you stick with it.
It couldn't have been easy. Year after year throughout Kane's childhood, Spurs were an afterthought, seen as another game on the schedule. Some of the better football players around had passed through White Hart Lane -- Paul Gascoigne and Gary Lineker, Teddy Sheringham and Jurgen Klinsmann -- but none stayed long enough to help win the league, or get close. "People forget that, not too long ago, we were nowhere near this level," Kane said, sitting on a couch at the club's training grounds in Enfield, north of London, one afternoon at the beginning of March.
He's Spurs' leading scorer now and has been for four seasons, which happen to coincide with Tottenham's best run of finishes in more than half a century: third, second and third in the past three campaigns, after failing to place as high as second since 1963. They're now third again this year with eight games left. "We've got as many points as we've ever had, I think, at this stage of the season," Kane added. "We've done so much in a short space of time."
Until a memorable 3-1 victory last season, Spurs hadn't won at Chelsea since the Premier League was still called the First Division, the day Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990. And until the season before that, they hadn't finished ahead of Arsenal since 1995, when Kane was 1. They've also made the Champions League three years in a row, after doing it once ever before that -- and they advanced to the quarterfinals for the third time after disposing of Borussia Dortmund. As March turns to April, they sit third in the Premier League. You can't put all those thirds in a display case, but they'd serve Kane well back at Larkswood. "Of course we want to go on to the next level and win the Premier League, and win trophies," he said. "But to consistently outperform these teams that have always been above us, it shows that we're in a good place."
Kane's rise has been equally dramatic. When Mauricio Pochettino became the manager in 2014, Kane was languishing on the depth chart, a perennial up-and-comer who'd gone out on four loans. Now? He's a two-time Premier League top scorer, England's captain and even a Member of the British Empire, as ordained by the queen. He's rated as a $175 million talent by Transfermarkt, a site that tracks such valuations, and ranked the No. 1 striker in the world by ESPN FC. "He's topped everyone's expectations," says Roy Hodgson, now at Crystal Palace, who gave Kane his international debut in 2015 as England manager.
Incrementally each season, Kane has been pulling his team toward the top with him. As of mid-February, Spurs had even moved within hoping distance of first, five points out. Then they went to Chelsea and the 1990s kicked in. If they'd allowed only the first goal, which squirted between the legs of keeper Hugo Lloris, the loss might have been surmountable. But late in the game, defender Kieran Trippier pushed a back pass beyond the reach of the advancing Lloris and into his own net. "Tottenham Hotspur," the Chelsea fans sang, "it's happened again."
If you've been following the Premier League, you'd know that isn't quite fair. One of the clubs Spurs has been chasing, Manchester City, is the world's richest. The other, Liverpool, bought four players for nearly $200 million during last summer's transfer window. In that same period, Spurs set a Premier League record that won't be broken by spending zero dollars. "We are third, and we didn't invest in the last two transfer windows," says Pochettino.
Much of that is because of the investment in an ambitious new stadium, which Spurs owner Daniel Levy has self-funded in north London, beside where White Hart Lane stood for more than a century. "I know very well what happened, from the inside," Pochettino says. "I know very well with what we are working. But the people can't understand. They want to judge us like another team, like Arsenal or City or Liverpool or Man United." Before he can change what others think of Spurs, Pochettino says, he has to change what they think of themselves. Doing that, he insists, is "even more important" than winning a title.
So far, at least, he has Kane convinced. "I've always said as long as the club is moving in the right direction and showing the right ambition, I want to be part of the journey," Kane says. But he turns 26 in July, and the world's best striker also ranks among its most ambitious. He has been patient since primary school, but even he doesn't know how much longer he can wait.
There are players who make you gasp when you watch them, the ones who race across the field like wild horses. Then there's Harry Kane. He runs with a slight stumble, like somebody keeps pushing him from behind. Tall and gangly, he shuffles into a scrum of defenders with the ball and it's always a surprise to see him emerge with it on the other side. He isn't having a particularly impressive afternoon, you're thinking, except -- whoa! -- there's a goal with a perfectly placed header off a corner, and -- wait! -- there's another off a rifled shot with time waning. Then the game is over, Spurs have won and Kane has done simply everything.
Until recently, those who mattered didn't know what to make of Kane. He was cut from Arsenal's program as a preteen because he was "chubby and not very athletic," the club's longtime youth director revealed to an Italian newspaper. He shouldn't be embarrassed about it because everyone else got Kane wrong too. After a wasted year in Watford, he ended up with Tottenham's juniors, where he'd wanted to be from the start. There too, nobody seemed to think Kane had a future except Kane himself. "My aim was always Spurs," he says. "It was playing for Spurs in the Premier League. And from the time that I was 14 or 15 and I started to get better and better, I realized it was a goal that I could actually get to. There were times when it started to look unlikely, but that was always my mindset."
"It would be a wrench for him to leave Tottenham and go somewhere else. If he goes anywhere, it would be Real Madrid. He's a Real Madrid kind of player."- Tim Sherwood, on Harry Kane's future
A handful of players at every academy are prized commodities, fawned over by coaches and whispered about by devoted fans. The others fill the space around them. At every level, Kane seemed to be just good enough. "Did he look like he would be an England captain and a top international striker? You would have to say no," says Russell Slade, who managed Leyton Orient in 2011 during Kane's five-month stay there, playing in the third tier of English football. "He was this skinny, gangly, 6-foot-4 17-year-old. Was he terrifically quick? Not really. But he maximized everything he had. And he had this great appetite to make a difference. He believed he could make a difference."
By then, Kane had already learned to cultivate his greatest skill, which is finding space to operate. Somehow, amid a crunch of defenders, he'll create enough room to receive a pass. "He can lose you in a telephone box," says Slade. "He only needs half a yard to get a shot off," says Jordan Pickford, the Everton goalkeeper, who plays with Kane for England. "And when he makes half a turn, he knows where the goal is without even looking. Nine times out of 10, that shot is going to be on target. Ask any defender -- he's very, very difficult to mark."
Kane showed that the next season at Millwall, one level up in the Sky Bet Championship, where he played when he was 18. In 14 games, he scored seven goals and it isn't hyperbolic to say that he saved the club from relegation. Still, that wasn't enough to keep him around White Hart Lane. At the start of the 2012-13 season, he was loaned to Norwich. The following January, he moved to Leicester. Along the way, Harry Redknapp had been replaced as Tottenham's manager by Andre Villas-Boas, but it hardly mattered. Villas-Boas looked at Kane and didn't see a Premier League player either.
Kane was on loan somewhere -- he doesn't even remember where, there were so many -- when he first became aware of Tom Brady.
"I started watching him on YouTube," Kane says. When he came across a documentary about the quarterback, he watched that too. "We've had a similar path being doubted when we were younger. Maybe not being the best athletes as kids." In Brady, who had willed his way to stardom by refusing to accept anyone else's judgment, Kane saw a finished version of himself. "It was quite a big inspiration," he adds. "Not many people thought he'd become that good, or even play in the NFL, and he went on to become the best ever. At the time, it gave me a real boost to say, look, anything is possible. If you have that self-belief and that drive and that hunger, you can do it."
While Brady was winning Super Bowls, Kane played in his first Premier League game for Spurs, against Newcastle in August 2012. He'd done what he'd set out to do; then he set out to do it every week. "He never felt he had a ceiling," says Tim Sherwood, who worked as Tottenham's first-team coach under Redknapp. "He still doesn't. Like the Lionel Messis and Cristiano Ronaldos of the world. He sees himself in that company." Even now, it sounds ridiculously brazen. But when Villas-Boas was fired by Tottenham, Sherwood was made the manager for the rest of the 2013-14 season while Spurs wooed Pochettino. He gave Kane a chance to play. "How did we know Frank Sinatra was a good singer until he sang onstage?" Sherwood asks.
That April 7, Sherwood started Kane against Sunderland. Kane scored. Sherwood started him in Tottenham's next game, at West Bromwich Albion. Kane scored. Sherwood started him against Fulham. Kane scored again. Kane started every game for the rest of the season.
Sherwood had found a Sinatra.
Out the train window, which is how you get the best view, it looks like a flying saucer. On the street it looms, gloriously but incongruously, over a neighborhood of ramshackle storefronts selling jerk chicken and calling cards to Africa. In early April, Tottenham's new stadium will finally be ready for a football match.
The designs for the new facility, advertised as the best in the world, were made in 2008. Since construction began in 2015, the projected opening date has been pushed back countless times, including almost on a match-by-match basis throughout the 2018-19 season. The delays left Tottenham lingering in their temporary home at Wembley, suitcases packed but nowhere to go. During that time, too, the cost -- bloated by overtime fees, nearly a season's worth of additional Wembley rentals and problems with the safety system -- has more than doubled, from roughly $600 million to more than $1.2 billion.
The idea of building a new stadium, which includes both an artificial surface for NFL games and a grass pitch, is meant to lift Spurs into the revenue-generating class of Arsenal, Chelsea and the Manchester clubs. Eventually a massive naming rights deal will be signed that may even approach the $500 million over 20 years that Levy is said to be seeking. For now, though, the stadium has become a very expensive, glass-and silver paneled millstone around his neck. The annual service on $800 million in loans will make splash spending nearly impossible this year, and perhaps years to come. Skeptics are quick to note that you can hardly spend less than literally nothing, but this isn't about adding quality as much as keeping the quality you have. "Arsenal suffered after they moved to their stadium," Pochettino says. "They struggled to keep their best players. I hope that will not happen here."
What Pochettino has accomplished in five years at Tottenham, blending tactical insights, motivational mastery and a dollop of magic, has been remarkable. But the standings function by wins, losses and draws, not expectations exceeded. The unavoidable question is whether the third-best team in England can keep the best striker in the world. History is skeptical. The reigning Ballon d'Or winner, Luka Modric, played at Tottenham until 2012, when he was lured away by Real Madrid. A year later, Gareth Bale left for the same team in what was at the time the most lucrative football transfer in history. "That chance to wear that white shirt of Real Madrid, quadruple your wage bill, win Champions League titles," says Sherwood. "It's hard to turn down."
Now Madrid is after Kane, by all accounts. The forces of battle are lining up predictably. On one side is loyalty to his lifelong club, and the immeasurable comfort of staying near home and his extended family. On the other is a sizable raise from his $13 million annual salary, coupled with the opportunity to play for a club successful enough to satisfy Kane's ambition to keep getting better even when he's already best. Real Madrid is suffering through its worst season in a generation, but an early Champions League exit is likely to push the team that has won the competition four times in the last five years to spend freely to return to a level of prominence that its supporters expect. "It would be a wrench for him to leave Tottenham and go somewhere else," Sherwood acknowledges. "He certainly wouldn't go anywhere else in the Premier League. If he goes anywhere, it would be Real Madrid. He's a Real Madrid kind of player."
Kane refuses to look down the road. "It's something you assess along the way," he says. Still, it's hard to imagine someone who identifies with a six-time Super Bowl champion remaining satisfied with a team that merely outperforms its wage bill. "A lot of people look at it and say this is maybe the best team we've had, maybe the best team we'll ever have, and the best manager, but it's important that we have something to show for it," he acknowledges. "It's not just, when we look back in 10 years, we had a great team. It's, 'Look what they did. Look what they won.' The challenge for us is, can we keep going up and up and up? It's going to be difficult in the next couple of years with the stadium and the finances."
When Pochettino arrived in the summer of 2014, he inherited two expensive strikers, Roberto Soldado and Emmanuel Adebayor. It didn't take long for him to realize that Kane would be his centerpiece. "He was improving and growing," Pochettino says. "We couldn't stop him. The moment that we started to work with him, he was so open to learn and improve. We just had to give him the space to show his quality and start to play, and he started to score goals and be fantastic."
Since then, their fortunes have been intertwined. "The journey at Spurs really started for me and him at the same time," Kane says. The presence of Kane, who signed a six-year contract extension last year, has fortified Pochettino against the advances of other clubs-including Real Madrid. Pochettino has also fielded at least preliminary inquiries from other teams, and linked with jobs from Manchester to, yes, Madrid. Seeing him commit to Spurs through 2023 helps Kane keep the faith. "We both want the same things," Kane says. "We both want to push and push and push, and work and work." But then he feels compelled to add, "We'll just have to see what happens this season, and go from there."
There's no dispute that Kane is known best for scoring goals. He had six of them in last summer's World Cup, enough to win the Golden Boot as the tournament's top scorer. Under Pochettino, he has scored 143 goals in the Premier League and Europe, more than a third of the team's total despite the lack of any other consistent threat to relieve marking pressure.
Not satisfied with being just a finisher, Kane has made himself into a No. 9 who plays like a No. 10, which happens to be his jersey number, or occasionally even a central midfielder. For someone with Kane's build and skill set, it's an impressive achievement. "People have this kind of old-fashioned view of an English No. 9 to be big and strong, and hold the ball up and flick it on, and they can finish as well," Kane says. "I can do that, but that's not my game. My game is a mixture of things. Dropping deep, creating space, passing. When games are going not that well, you can do other things to help your team other than just shooting."
These days, Spurs players will confirm, Kane is the most accomplished passer on the team. "Watch him when he drops a little deeper into midfield and holds off some stronger defenders," says Craig Burley, the former Chelsea and Derby County player and Scottish international who now commentates for ESPN. "Then he sprays a 40- or 50-yard pass across the field, and it's about 10 feet above the ground at all times and usually right on the spot."
"He has the quality and the brains to operate in different areas," adds Jan Vertonghen, who has seen Kane evolve since joining Spurs in 2012. Still, Vertonghen prefers to see him playing in the box and not just because that's where the goals come from. If Kane's there, it means the ball is getting through. It's only when it isn't that he goes foraging for it.
Kane's delight in confounding expectations may take him even further afield. When he's done with this kind of football, he doesn't see why he can't try the other kind, maybe after a year or two in MLS as a segue. He enjoys America, and his obsession with Brady has led to a fascination with all things NFL. Out of the Tottenham lineup with a bad ankle, he flew to Atlanta to watch the Patriots win the Super Bowl. Then Brady, who has been corresponding with Kane on social media, invited him to the team party. "We'd kind of become friends but had never met," Kane says. "It was a bit strange. I hadn't been a fan of any team since I was young and supporting Tottenham."
Kane is convinced that his knack for placing a ball just where he wants to can be extrapolated to place-kicking, as it was in the late 1990s for former Spurs forward Clive Allen in NFL Europe. "That's real," he insists. "Something that in 10 or 12 years I definitely want to try." It wouldn't be for the fame, and the contract of an NFL kicker would pay him a fraction of what he'd get scoring goals a few more years in Dubai or China. "It goes back to that drive to be the best," he says. "Even if I download a game on my phone, can I be the best in the world?" The incentive isn't just to compete against other kickers, he reveals, but everyone who ever laced up a pair of athletic shoes. "If you play in the Premier League and the World Cup and you then play in the NFL," he wonders, "would you then be considered one of the greatest sportsmen ever?"
He's serious, but don't go buying one of the Kane NFL jerseys on sale at the new Spurs team shop just yet. Pochettino likes to tell his players that football takes you where it wants to. It's his way of reminding them not to make grand plans, to live in the moment, because life will surprise them. "Football is so dynamic," he says. Maybe Spurs will win the Champions League this year (it's far from inconceivable, especially with Real Madrid out) and become the next Manchester City, and Kane will stay forever and become iconic, the club's Raul, its Beckenbauer, its Iniesta. Or maybe they flame out in the quarterfinals, fall behind Arsenal and Chelsea and out of the top four, and fade back into midtable, West Ham with a better stadium. Would Pochettino turn down Real Madrid at that point? Would Kane?
"You can't fight against your destiny," Pochettino says, answering a question about Kane's future. What that means, he has no idea. But he wants to make the point that it isn't a question of logic or even always free will, so predictions are foolish. He stops for a moment to consult with Jesus Perez, his assistant manager, to get the translation of an Argentine proverb just right. Finally, he has it. "You can try," he says. "But you can't block out the sun with your hands."