If you are wondering why on earth Rafa Benítez would go to Newcastle United from Real Madrid, consider this: the last time he didn’t have a professional side to manage, he took over his local school team on the Wirral.
“It was hilarious,” his wife, Montse, recalled. “He stood there on the touchline and shouted at them as if it was the first division, waving his arms around.” This is not just Rafa’s job, she explained, it is his “passion”; football manager isn’t what he does, it is what he is. “Take the pitch away from him,” she said, “and ...”
And there is nothing.
Benítez is exactly the kind of coach Pep Guardiola was talking about during a 2011 interview with the screenwriter and producer Fernando Trueba. In it, Trueba tells the story of the film director Jean-Paul Belmondo who gets challenged by an actor for agreeing to direct a dreadful film. “With the money you’ve got, your standard of life, what need is there?” he asks. Belmondo’s response is eloquent: to get up every day, to leave home, to go on set, talk to the electricians and the machinists, to feel part of it. “It doesn’t matter that the film is bad,” he says.
Guardiola replies that there are coaches whose attitude is like Belmondo’s: “They could say: ‘No, no, I’ve got my status, I’ve coached Real Madrid ... I can’t just go and coach at any old place. [But], no, instead, they go. They go because they like the day‑to‑day, being with the players, preparing games, the adrenaline, the fear of losing, the blows from the media,” he says. “They prefer that to being at home.”
Benítez certainly does. With the money he has – and the pay-off from Madrid was certainly significant – with the way he can live, what need is there? The answer is simple: every need. Benítez has always stood out as an obsessive, someone who once protested: “I don’t spend all day thinking about football,” before pausing to admit, “but a large part of it, yeah.” He spent part of his honeymoon watching Milan train and Montse revealed that on their first date he introduced her to 4-4-2.
There is something on which Benítez would disagree with Belmondo. It does matter that the film is bad – or, in his case, the team. Yet whereas many see joining Newcastle as risky, or even plain stupid, it is attractive to him. For a start, it was the only job available. It is only two months since he was sacked at the Bernabéu and the speed underlines how keen Benítez was to get back into work; how he needed it. But that is not all.
Benítez is more comfortable in the Premier League than anywhere else. He has expressed before his belief that managers there are afforded an authority and respect denied them elsewhere. He and his family are certainly more comfortable in England. When he returned to Madrid, the city where he was born and raised, his wife and children did not come with him but stayed in the Merseyside area.
Newcastle may be in desperate trouble, 19th in the table, but this remains a huge club and those problems too give him an opportunity to prove himself. The paucity of Steve McClaren’s work leaves him significant margin for improvement. It may even be tempting to imagine that he cannot lose: if he pulls them to safety, he will be deemed a success; if they go down, well, they were going down anyway. This may not need to be his final destination, but does represent the chance to climb back on board. To reconstruct his reputation and his career. If, that is, he really needs to.
In England, Benítez’s reputation suffered less damage than it has in Spain. When his assistant Fabio Pecchia talked about a president with a “permanent presence” and Benítez expanded on that idea of interference from the Santiago Bernabéu boardroom on BT recently, when he chose to highlight the club’s structural flaws, few in the UK doubted that he was right. “You have to see what has happened there over the last few years. Camacho, Del Bosque, Pellegrini, Mourinho, Ancelotti … it’s not easy to be the manager there,” he said, and they saw.
In Spain, most knew he was right too. In fact many noted that he hadn’t said anything they did not already know, nor indeed anything that he should not have already known. But rather than engaging with what he said, many attacked him for saying it. It did not help that he said it there, not here. Some criticised him for not having spoken out when he was there, as if any manager would ever do that, but there was more to it than just not having spoken out. While he had been Madrid manager, he had even denounced a media campaign against the club, himself and Florentino Pérez – the same president he now identified as the problem.
If Benítez had thought that he would ingratiate himself with Pérez by saying so, echoing his master’s voice and playing a political card designed to increase his chances of survival, it did not work. Nor did it help him when he opted for the starting lineup he thought politically rather than tactically expedient when the clásico came round. Benítez chose the team “suggested” to him, not the one he truly believed in, but Madrid lost 4-0 anyway. He, meanwhile, lost credibility.
Because of his personality and his methodology, Benítez is the type of manager whose style was always likely to prove problematic with a squad of players like Madrid’s, politicised and powerful. His appointment was an accident waiting to happen, if not entirely unavoidable – particularly as he arrived after Carlo Ancelotti and thus effectively played the role of the stepmother. His relationship with the president always felt like an odd one, too; they could hardly have more different views of the game and soon the brief he had been handed changed.
Benítez seemed unaware of just how eroded his relationship with many of the players became – something they were not slow to reveal, pointedly, even cruelly, once he had gone – but he was aware of the different criteria he and the president held. The problem was that being aware of it, knowing where real power lay and being prepared to accommodate that, may even have made things worse.
The man who demands to control everything, who famously complained that Valencia had bought him a sofa when he wanted a lamp and who Jermaine Pennant memorably accused of trying to control him by remote, snapping, “Just stick some batteries in me and call me a robot”, lost the one thing he hates to lose: control. Right from the start he made too many concessions, accepting that this time he would not be the architect.
On one level that was understandable – it was Real Madrid, after all – but Benítez stopped being Benítez, and it proved unsuccessful as a survival mechanism. In the end, he died not with his boots on but with someone else’s, sacked in his absence on a wet, cold Monday night, mentioned one last time and never since, as if he had never been there at all. Now, two months later, he is back on a very different bench. The Madrid experience cannot have failed to change him and yet one of the most important lessons he learned will surely be: don’t change, be yourself. And what Rafa Benítez is, is a football manager.
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