Most footballers shy away from comparisons to the greats but not Harry Kane. The Tottenham and England striker has consistently judged himself against the two best players of this generation, and perhaps all-time: Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
A reminder of this came in the first episode of Amazon’s “All or Nothing: Tottenham Hotspur” docuseries when Kane sat down with Jose Mourinho for their first one-on-one meeting in the manager’s office.
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“When you are at a club like Tottenham, of course, we’ve done well, personally I’ve done well but I want to be… Ronaldo and Messi,” he said holding an outstretched hand up above his head to indicate the lofty level he wants to reach. This is a familiar refrain from Kane and one that has for years been framed as admirable aspiration, an example of the tireless work ethic and professionalism driving him through adversity to the sport’s summit.
How ironic that in a country with a habit of thrusting players onto a pedestal at a premature age, the England captain invites such scrutiny through his own fearless attitude. However, Kane is now 27. By that age, Messi had already become Barcelona‘s all-time leading goalscorer and won 20 major club honours, while Ronaldo had spent four years as the world’s most expensive footballer following his £80 million move from Manchester United to Real Madrid with 10 major club honours to his name.
Kane sits third on Tottenham’s career goal list and possesses two runners-up medals. This is not to disparage how good a player Kane has become but if his goal of joining the pantheon of all-time greats is to be realised, this season is quite simply the biggest of his career by some distance.
Spurs face an almighty task in proving themselves capable of challenging for the Premier League title. The campaign will finish with a delayed European Championships, at which Kane will lead an England team with a live chance of a first tournament success in 55 years.
The time to step up is now.
Jose Mourinho’s sales pitch to Kane upon replacing Mauricio Pochettino was to accentuate the global standing the former Porto, Chelsea, Inter Milan, Real Madrid and Manchester United boss enjoys in the game.
“The world looks to English football with incredible respect but they still think the movie stars of football belong to other places,” he told Kane. “And I think we have to build also your status in that direction. My profile, I am a little bit that as a coach. The reality is my dimension is universal and by being with me, I think I can help.”
Kane is already globally recognisable from his status as a top-class Premier League striker and England captain. His domestic record — 143 goals from 210 League games — is the product of remarkable consistency made more commendable by the hurdles he overcame to establish himself. He is a highly marketable individual already but material wealth alone does not drive him. And in any case, there is only one thing missing, one additional ingredient that can catapult him into the highest echelons where he craves to exist: trophies.
In this sense, Kane embodies where Tottenham are as a club: they have progressed far beyond expectation, proven themselves capable of competing with the best around but have nothing tangible to show for it. Mourinho’s appointment was designed to address this. Chairman Daniel Levy had his disagreements with Pochettino — despite the former’s public denials — but he is sincere when suggesting he reluctantly sacked the Argentine last November.
Yet out of that awkward uncoupling came the opportunity to appoint a bona fide winner. Mourinho may be facing accusations he is a busted flush these days but his CV remains the envy of most others. The Portuguese boss quickly sought to embrace Kane in the understandable belief he almost certainly cannot be a success at Spurs without him.
There was a sense that a cycle had ended with Pochettino’s departure, a feeling accelerated further by Christian Eriksen and then Jan Vertonghen seeking pastures new. Kane’s talismanic importance has only grown in the meantime. Losing him would be nothing short of a disaster, a damning statement from the club’s best player that they are simply incapable of reaching the pinnacle. Mourinho may still be a relatively new appointment but the clock is already ticking.
Kane created headlines during an Instagram Q&A session around a week after the UK went into lockdown in March.
“I’m not someone to stay there for the sake of it,” he said of Tottenham, in amongst some evenly-balanced sentiment about reconciling personal ambition with professional loyalty.
Lockdown was a reflectionary period for everyone and Kane is no different. It emerged this week in the Amazon docuseries that before this Q&A, the striker had already committed his conundrum to camera.
“The scary thing is that it goes so quick,” he said in the early days of his rehabilitation from the hamstring injury sustained on New Year’s Day. “The seasons go so quick, the time goes so quick. I’m 27 in the summer and I feel like I’ve just started last year. That’s the thing: when you are so non-stop, you don’t have time to process it all. It’s ‘onto the next one, onto the next one’. And then all of a sudden, you are getting to 32, 33 you are thinking ‘I ain’t got too long left.'”
The accompanying sense of making up for lost time is no doubt due to the circuitous route he endured to the Spurs first-team, via inauspicious loan spells at Leyton Orient, Millwall, Norwich City and Leicester City. Kane would love nothing more than to complete that journey by winning major honours with Tottenham — in 2018, he signed a six-year deal worth £200,000-a-week to do just that — but the doubts over whether that is possible grow ever louder.
Chelsea have invested heavily to bridge the gap to Liverpool and Manchester City, while Manchester United and Arsenal are showing signs of promising regeneration. United, surely, will spend again before the window shuts.
Meanwhile, Levy has shrewdly restructured the debt created by building their stunning £1 billion stadium but he was the first Premier League chairman to warn of COVID-19’s financial impact. To that point, nobody is under any illusions that Spurs can spend big to accelerate their assault.
The domestic cup competitions and the Europa League offer the best chances of silverware but they are merely stepping stones. Many Spurs fans may crave silverware of any description after 12 years without a trophy but Kane wants Premier League and Champions League winners’ medals.
He is, remember, judging himself against serial winners of the club game’s biggest prizes. After revealing he had hired a personal chef in Oct.2017 to optimise his nutritional intake, Kane stated it was because he wants to make “every day count” in his bid to rival Ronaldo and Messi. These are now his peak years in physical terms, the next Euros and World Cup the theoretical apotheosis of his international career.
Kane is the one wanting to take himself to the highest possible level. The problem is that if Tottenham do not end their wait for honours this season, he may end up wanting to take himself to another club that can.