Of all the things that you expected to hear about in a Champions League press conference, cows probably weren’t on the list. But when Mauricio Pochettino took the microphone at the San Siro ahead of Tottenham Hotspur’s match against Inter Milan, we got cows. Poch was making a point about the benefit of experience when preparing to play at the highest levels of football, but instead of the usual platitudes and metaphors, Pochettino said this:
#thfc Poch has just had his Cantona 'Seagulls' moment! "[Experience] is like a cow who sees a train every day for ten years crossing in front [of her], and if you ask the cow when the train is coming she's not going to answer."— Dan Kilpatrick (@Dan_KP) September 17, 2018
(If you’re wondering what the Cantona “Seagulls” moment is, it was a statement made in a press conference by Eric Cantona who, just after avoiding a possible prison sentence for karate-kicking a football supporter in the stands, said the following to reporters: “When the seagulls follow the trawler, it’s because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea.” Nobody knew what he meant either.)
So. Let’s talk about that cow. Naturally, English isn’t Pochettino’s first language, and it’s tempting to see a comment like that and immediately think that something got lost in translation along the way. Experience is a cow? What kind of cow, dairy or meat? Why a train? Is it the same kind of train? Does it matter if sometimes it was an Amtrak train instead of cargo? And of COURSE the cow isn’t going to say anything, cows don’t talk!
The comment seemed to befuddle everyone, both in the press room and on social media.
When a cow sees a train every day for ten years, the train crossing in front, and you ask the cow when the train is coming, and she doesn’t answer pic.twitter.com/PDIEz8TqtM— Lemon Watcher (@deepxg) September 17, 2018
Dan Kilpatrick followed up with his own take.
I think he meant: the experience of playing in this type of big CL game is all very well but it means nothing if you don't learn from it in the future.— Dan Kilpatrick (@Dan_KP) September 17, 2018
But if you really look at what he said, Pochettino is making an important point. Experience isn’t something you react to. Experience is seeing something happen enough times that you don’t even NEED to speak about it — it’s part of your understanding of the world. Here’s how Michael Caley summarized Poch’s point on Twitter:
this metaphor is good and smart.— Michael Caley (@MC_of_A) September 17, 2018
he's describing the habitus, the embodied dispositions by which we can skillfully navigate the world. the cow just _knows_ where the train will be, she doesn't need to think about it. https://t.co/pIDXtolz94
That’s great, but it completely ignores that we’re talking about Tottenham Hotspur, here. So, great, the experienced Cowspur has the experience to know implicitly when that train is going to come, and because that Tottenham cow can’t have nice things it’ll invariably wander out on the tracks on the day they change the train schedule, whereby WHAM, hamburger. You see the danger here?
So either Tottenham are a team full of experienced cows, placidly munching our way to the Champions League quarterfinals, or we’re gonna get flattened by an Italian locomotive, right? I’m gonna go have a steak now.