It was a familiar move that led to the historic goal. Christian Eriksen was lurking in Luka Milivojevic’s blindspot as the Crystal Palace midfielder received a pass in his own half. Eriksen immediately pressed, surprising Milivojevic and easily recovering the ball. The Danish playmaker then changed fields with a pass to Son Heung-min into Tottenham’s right wing. Son cut inside onto his left foot and took a shot that deflected off Milivojevic, thus scoring the club’s first goal in their new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. Mauricio Pochettino described the night, a 2-0 win for his side, as one of the best moments of chairman Daniel Levy’s life. As match reports pointed out, the only odd detail was that the final attendance of 59,215 fell short of the 62,062 sellout.
The rising budget and delays surrounding its completion were forgotten in the euphoria of the moment. Plans to open the stadium at the start of the season were pushed back due to “critical safety system” issues, leading to questions as to whether the stadium would open at all this season. The original budget was estimated at $520 million, rising to $980 million in 2017, with final estimates putting the cost at over $1.3 billion. Yet both Levy and Pochettino were in agreement that an upgrade was necessary to compete in the new European soccer landscape, even with the resulting lack of transfer market activity. In a bit of soccer trivia, Lucas Moura is the last player the Spurs signed in the transfer market.
“We wanted to create a seating bowl that had identity, that had character, that wasn’t just a symmetrical ubiquitous stadium where you didn’t know where you are,” said Christopher Lee, managing director of the architecture firm that built the new stadium, on the defining South Stand that sits 17,500 supporters. Lee emphasized the experiential nature of the new stadium, from its cafe and brewery that will be open during non-match days to the free-flowing nature of the NFL-inspired concourse. The design of the stadium came from a central thesis: what makes an authentic footballing experience?
We saw Levy and the club juggle the balance between the short-term strategy of investing resources into a stadium for the long-term gain of competing on a global scale for talent and supporters take place in real time. The club did not sign a new player for two consecutive transfer windows, which seems unthinkable in the modern Premier League era. That they remain in 4th place while also ahead against Manchester City in the Champions League quarterfinals shows how essential Pochettino has been in stitching the side together on and off the field. The totality of his skills, ranging from his in-game tactical adjustments to the implementation of youth players, is one of the most impressive achievements of the current era. How many other managers would excel in a similar position?
There is some alternate history where Pochettino is able to sign players, perhaps adding depth for Harry Kane as he looks to be out for the season. The Argentine’s essential ability to find value and squeeze every last bit from a roster recalls rival Arsene Wenger in the mid-2000s as Arsenal built their stadium. Wenger took the opportunity to troll Spurs supporters as he reflected upon his experience during that era, first by suggesting that Tottenham may have to sell Kane to Arsenal to pay for the stadium, and secondly in saying that Arsenal had a “double handicap” of having to pay back debt while competing with billionaire clubs. Wenger referred to Highbury as “a cathedral” where “you could smell the soul of every guy that played there.” But what was lost in feeling and memory was made up for on the other end, in modernity and maintaining a club’s status within the top of the sporting world.
With Tottenham Hotspur Stadium finally built, next is surely the era of opulence, when Pochettino is rewarded for his patience with a series of mid-eight figure transfers? Quite the opposite, according to Wenger. He remembers banks letting the club only use 50% of their finances on transfers as they paid back their debt, forcing him to sell Arsenal’s top players. Wenger admitted that the expected success from building the Emirates never fully worked out as outside money began pouring into the game.
But still, Arsenal then and Tottenham now “had to do it,” even as the goalposts continue to move year after year. How not to get left behind in European soccer without outside investment, when spending over a billion dollars on a new stadium offers no guarantees of success, is one of the many paradoxes of the modern game.
“It’s the benchmark for how a stadium should be designed,” added Lee. “There is no doubt in my mind that Tottenham Hotspur Stadium is the best stadium in the world.”
Before Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, it was Atletico Madrid’s Wanda Metropolitano that received the architectural accolades. Named the best football stadium in the world last year, a jury praised the Wanda’s combination of aesthetics, technology, and versatility all to create a “unique experience” for a supporter. Outside of the acclaim, the new stadium did enable the club to host this season’s Champions League Final. And more appropriate to Tottenham and Pochettino, Diego Simeone signed a long-term extension to stay with the club as they create a new legacy in their updated surroundings.
It may be years or decades, but the thinking goes that Tottenham will eventually take full advantage of the branding and economic value from the stadium’s construction. Pochettino said that finally moving into the stadium was its own type of glory, excited by the extra bit of quickness, pace, and energy that the new stadium would inject into his players. But aesthetics and emotional connection to a club aside, there remains a nagging feeling that a new stadium is only table stakes with how rapidly soccer is evolving. Perhaps a more relevant topic is how else an ambitious club is supposed to keep pace with their peers outside of spending billions and going into debt or taking on alternative investments. The construction and delays are over, the stadium is acclaimed, now all that remains is for Pochettino to continue to overachieve on the field season after season. And even that might not be enough.