The way Armando Shashoua remembers it, the story starts in an abandoned warehouse somewhere in Russia. When it is almost told, the former Tottenham midfielder asks a question of his own. The interview has just finished without inquiring about men such as John McDermott, Justin Cochrane, Matt Wells or Scott Parker, so he says something that says as much about him as it does about them, to which the answer can only be of course: “Is it OK if I talk about the coaches I’ve had, because they’ve been really important to my journey?”
At 21, it’s a journey which has a long way to go: next stop Sunday’s Copa del Rey last-16 tie against Valencia for Atlético Baleares, the Mallorcan side who are the only third-tier club left in the competition, who already knocked out two primera teams. It is also unusual, multinational. Shashoua has Egyptian, American, Venezuelan and Spanish heritage, was born in London, and attended one of the most English institutions of all, a former boarder at Harrow like Lord Byron and Winston Churchill. And his first football memory comes from Syetun, Moscow.
“We lived in Russia because my dad was working there. I don’t remember well because I was only about four but he hired a trainer for my brother and I. We went to an abandoned warehouse and worked with a ball without a flat surface so it bounced off walls weirdly to test your touch. And that’s where it all started.”
It was an unorthodox beginning but it worked. Armando and Samuel, 17 months older, soon joined Tottenham. Armando, not named after Maradona although “the link’s nice”, joined Friday sessions at Spurs Lodge aged seven and progressed to the under-23 squad, leaving in January 2020. Now, both are in Spain: Armando at Baleares; Samuel at second division Tenerife.
Shashoua smiles. “My mum spent so many hours driving us to football she injured her back: all the love in the world goes to her. And I think my dad’s happy he didn’t give away the money sending us to Harrow that would have provided a career path and a ‘normal life’.”
Alejandra is a Venezuelan-Spanish psychotherapist, Mark the Egyptian-American CEO of the events multinational Hyve and a “massive, massive Matt Le Tissier fan”. Their sons are eligible to play for all four countries and England, their passports British. “I was born in Chelsea, we went to Russia, came back, lived in the countryside,” he says. “I played for London Colney Colts, where a Spurs scout saw me. My brother went to Harrow, I moved to Battersea to finish prep school then went too.”
Harrow is more a rugby school and worlds apart from N17, where Shashoua could have found rejection. “I never really got that,” he says. “I definitely felt a little different, going from boarding school to training, but it’s really helped me come to terms with a variety of things; different cultures, people, upbringings, ways of life and thinking. My Tottenham friends and school friends hang out together. It’s funny how that intersects and it works fine. I never felt ostracised.
“It’s something I got more from coaches: ‘You’re posh, you could have your life sorted. How much do you really want it?’ That does get brought up; it’s up to you to show: ‘No, I want to play because I love football.’ Teachers might say: ‘You’d be better off doing X.’ But it’s how much you want it, essentially.”
A lot, and there was support too. Teachers accepted absences because he did well; Tottenham provided tutors through A levels in maths and economics. There’s warmth and gratitude when he talks about his coaches. McDermott, the academy director, “strengthening you mentally, ready for the outside world”. Cochrane “making everything easy”. Parker, “who I hope can see 1% of him in me”. And Wells: “obsessed,” studying football to an “absurd degree”.
“They’re doing really well at Bournemouth, which makes me very happy,” Shashoua says. “Our playing style in the under-17s and under-18s with them would remind you of Pep.” He grew up an Arsenal fan – “I love Santi Cazorla” – but joining Spurs changed that and his real idols were Xavi Hernández and Andrés Iniesta. Which is why he wears No 6. “For Thiago [Alcântara] too,” he says, smiling. He says Guardiola’s Barcelona team had “a magic about it”, yet he “loves” Real Madrid too. The next step made sense.
“My friends are in London: sometimes you just send a picture. You’re on the beach and they send back one of the rain,” he laughs. But it’s not that. “Spain had been on my mind a while, thinking it might suit my style, but I was focused on making it at Tottenham. The under-23 league is great but managers don’t see it as a ‘real league’ in terms of experience, so I wanted to play games and Atlético came up.
“My brother had gone a couple of years before and did really well, which opened a pathway. This was a January loan and I didn’t see a route to the [Spurs] first team. I thought: ‘Why not?’ So, I went there and …”
Shashoua delivers the punchline with perfect comic timing: “… it didn’t go well.”
In Mallorca, Armando briefly lived with Samuel, although they never played together. He also lived with the Scotland Under-21 international Jordan Holsgrove, now at Celta. But playing was different. “The manager said he wasn’t sure who I was; just that I was Sam’s brother. It was more the technical director who signed me. Then Covid hit. I played once and the season was written off.
“Still, they offered me a contract the next season. There’s a lot of upward mobility in Spain’s lower divisions so I thought: ‘I’m going to try again, this can work.’”
It has. “The set-up at Baleares is outstanding,” Shashoua says. “We have an owner who really cares, a new stadium, good scouts, technical director. Our manager [Xavi Calm] is very, very good: we love him.” They are well-placed to try for promotion and in the cup they didn’t just knock out Getafe; they hammered them 5-0, the island going wild.
“I was in shock; it was crazy,” Shashoua says. “At one point we were keeping the ball and the fans were doing the olés and everything and it feels surreal. Especially because in the last round we’d gone to a team in our division and were losing until our goalkeeper scored in the 94th minute. It went to penalties – I missed mine – and went through, then went and beat Getafe 5-0.
“There were three teams in our pot and Barcelona and Madrid in the other. And it turned out we were the ones that didn’t get them. You think: ‘Ah, so close’ because that’s a dream. But you’re playing a first division side, and it’s great anyway.”
Beating them too, a 2-1 win over Celta leaving Baleares facing Valencia, the story of the season. “We’re all on a high, so happy. I was speaking to someone on the pitch after the Celta game, saying: ‘You know what? Let’s win it. Let’s win the cup. Why not?’ The odds are minimal, but that’s football. The dream carries you.”