Harry Kane’s mask slips – now we finally see how much his trophy curse means

Harry Kane looks dejected after Bayern Munich's Champions League semi-final defeat to Real Madrid
Harry Kane's desolation at the final whistle against Real Madrid was palpable - Getty Images/Alexander Hassenstein

At the Bernabeu on Wednesday night, the television cameras caught Harry Kane watching the last few moments of Bayern Munich’s late meltdown from behind one of the high-backed dugout chairs and briefly let slip the customary mask of composure.

Kane is an unusual modern footballer in that he rarely permits himself to convey a flicker of vulnerability in the difficult moments. For the hundreds of hours he has spent on a pitch, it is hard to recall much overt Kane despair beyond the occasional bout of staring into the mid-distance. Yet as the Real Madrid comeback unfolded on the pitch he slumped, pressed his forehead dolefully into the seat in front of him and could no longer watch.

At 30, of course, and still without a trophy, his tale is one of the compelling stories of football. How the great English goalscorer of his generation ended up with nothing by this stage of his career is a remarkable outcome. He will doubtless win something domestically eventually at a dysfunctional Bayern, still without a manager for next season, yet – even so.

He has been the star of a Tottenham side that was the best at the club in two decades. The star of an England side that was the best the country had known in at least 30 years. Now he is the leading light in a Bayern team that has given up a dominant position in Germany for the first time in 12 years. Which all goes to show that the art of trophy winning can be hard to decipher.

Jude Bellingham consoles Harry Kane at the final whistle
Jude Bellingham consoles Kane at the final whistle - Getty Images/S. Mellar

On all occasions the margins were fine. Real are on the brink of six Champions League titles in 11 years in a Uefa competition the club still seeks to dismantle. They have not always been the best team in every edition they have won, but these things can gather a strange momentum.

Kane’s goalscoring has been monumental. He has developed into the dominant all-round striker that the English game has rarely produced. His eight goals and four assists in the Champions League this season once again mark him out as one of the giants of the European game. That there is not even a League Cup to show for it is indicative more of the perils of career planning than any reflection of his capabilities.

Harry Kane celebrates scoring for Bayern Munich against Real Madrid in the Champions League semi-final first leg
Kane's goalscoring brilliance has not relented since his move to Bayern Munich - Getty Images/Kevin Voigt

The six-year contract that Kane signed, aged 24, at Spurs before the World Cup finals in the summer of 2018 made the player a very wealthy young man and handed the club all the power. One trophy at Spurs might have been worth five to Kane elsewhere. Also, that one of the clubs outside the wealthiest Premier League elite could hold onto a player of his standing was great for the competition. But was it great for Kane?

That his career development was slower than many others in the elite meant that his first big contract was signed later in the usual career arc of a leading player. Had he signed it in 2016, then the dynamics would have been different, but all that is gone now.

What remains is the lesson of how ruthless leading players must be in the brief flourishing they have at the elite level. Kane knew in 2018 that he was to be less than a month from his 31st birthday when that contract was due to expire – at the end of June this year. He will also have known how stubborn Daniel Levy was likely to be. His move to Bayern last summer with one year left on the 2018 Spurs deal was by no means a bad option, but Kane’s situation did not afford him all the options. He was never going to be sold to a Premier League rival.

Harry Kane, playing for Tottenham in 2023, lies on the turf dejected during a Champions League match against AC Milan
Kane's career at Spurs will be constantly dogged by retrospective 'what-ifs' - Getty Images/James Gill

The Real defeat fell on the fifth anniversary of Spurs’ historic Amsterdam comeback in a Champions League semi-final, when Lucas Moura’s hat-trick saw them through against Ajax. That night Kane was in the midst of a rare prolonged injury absence. An ankle issue meant he had not played since April 9 and would not do so again until the final against Liverpool on June 1. Even that felt like a risk on the night and so it proved. Moura was dropped by then Spurs manager Mauricio Pochettino and Kane was not Kane.

Against Real, Thomas Tuchel said he had no option in the closing stages but to substitute Kane, who was suffering from back problems. Once again, the poker-face of Kane never suggested an issue. One can only assume that it must have been bad. Kane is a master of winding down a game – from defending corners, to winning cheap free-kicks that chip away at the time.

The Bundesliga’s new leading goalscorer has some weeks of rest now before he leads England in Germany at the Euros. It is to his credit that Kane retains the fierce sense of the competitor but never loses the cheerful disposition of a man prepared to accept the game’s vicissitudes. Maybe this summer the trophy curse ends with England. It certainly is no reflection on the talent of one of English football’s great players.