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Rafa Benitez — a playing career cut short by injury to the heights of the Champions League final - The Red Debate
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Now managing Chinese Super League club Dalian Yifang, Rafael Benitez Maudes has had a much-lauded career. He’s a man that commands great respect in the football world – his successful CV backing that up. Known for his in-depth analysis and knowledge of the game, he is a master tactician of the game. A chess player in the sport. For Reds fans, in particular, a legend of the game.

Fondly named Rafa by most, Benitez will go down in Liverpool’s illustrious history for the 5th European title he brought back to Anfield, and on a more personal level the tears he shed during a Hillsborough memorial ceremony. His endearing persona, combined with the trophies, left many LFC fans (myself included) unhappy with the way that the love affair between him and LFC came to an end.

This was undeniably made worse by the shoddy state of affairs at the club due to the ownership at the time being what can only be described as arguably the worst in the club’s history. Despite leaving LFC, Rafa stayed in Merseyside with his family and his love for not just LFC but the English game is without question. He is a family man who has an enormous amount of pride in his work.

In this article, we’ll take an in-depth look at Rafa’s life, his philosophy and why he should be remembered as a managerial great.

Where did it all begin?

I expect most do not know his story. Beginning as a young lad who excelled in football, basketball and tennis, as well as being a superb chess and ‘stratego’ player — an early indication of the tactician he was to later become – Rafa began his path into football at Real Madrid, joining their ranks at 13 years of age whilst continuing his education.

Progressing through the Madrid youth teams, he excelled academically and in football, seeing him gain a degree in Physical Education and also being called up to the Spanish University National team.

Unfortunately, a terrible knee injury set his football career back and he was promptly loaned out of Madrid. After spending a few years on loan, years blighted by recurring knee problems, Rafa retired early at the age of 26.

He swiftly became the Technical Director for Madrid and then went on to become the u19 manager, winning 2 league titles and a cup in 3 years. Following his success at youth management level, then Madrid manager Vicente Del Bosque offered Benitez the assistant manager role. He excelled, and it was clear he had what it takes to be a great manager. A job offer followed.

Going solo, Rafa went to Extremadura, getting them promoted to La Liga. He then went to Tenerife, again getting them promoted to La Liga. Despite a few setbacks, these credentials meant that Benitez got offered his first major managing role for Spanish giants Valencia.

Incredible success was soon to follow. Under Benitez, Valencia began playing a style of football that saw them rise above the rest to remarkably win their first league title in 31 years. For those of you who don’t remember, this was at a time when the Spanish league was considered the best in the world, containing the ‘Galacticos’ of Madrid, the great Barcelona, ‘superdepor’ Deportivo (a major force back then), the rich Sevilla and a strong Atletico Madrid side.

Benitez was awarded the Golden Club Crest for the work he did for Valencia by the club President in 2011. But a new, bigger challenge was to follow. He made the move to Liverpool to become the first Spanish manager at the club.

Going on to take Liverpool to the top of Europe’s elite and to their highest ever Premier League finish (at the time) was just part of the story that saw Benitez gain love at Anfield.

Rafa the manager

Married with children, Benitez is known for his dedication to the beautiful game. He’s an emotional man, which in the past has earned love but also cost him dearly. Perhaps his most notable outburst of emotion was to his chairman at a time when he had just won the Club World Championship with Inter Milan. Immediately after winning the final Benitez was visibly unhappy and publicly voiced his disapproval of lack of funds and the way the club was being run to, essentially, his boss. Needless to say, Benitez left Inter by mutual consent shortly afterwards. Another high-profile outburst was his rant about Sir Alex Ferguson and the power he had over referees and other aspects of the game – a move that afterwards saw Liverpool slump in form.

At Liverpool, he created quite possibly the strongest spine a Reds team has ever seen. Despite some poor signings such as Robbie Keane and Alberto Aquilani, the likes of Pepe Reina, Xabi Alonso, Fernando Torres and Javier Mascherano made Liverpool a mighty force, particularly in Europe.

One of the best performances I have seen the Reds put in was when Real Madrid, captained by the World Player of the Year Fabio Cannavaro, got hammered 4–0 with Torres and Stevie G giving them the run-around.

Benitez’ philosophy and style of football was admirable and his tactical genius often got the better of many world-class managers — Ferguson, Mourinho and Wenger – despite being limited to resources.

Even after his departure, the club was reaping the rewards of his work. Not many people give him credit for the youth set up he orchestrated. The likes of Martin Kelly, Jay Spearing, Raheem Sterling, Suso, Conor Coady, Jonjo Shelvey and more went on to play for the first team and be sold on for good profit. Before Rafa, Liverpool’s reserve and youth set up was nowhere near the standard it now is.

However, his managerial career hasn’t all been plain sailing. As mentioned, his time at Inter was short-lived and ended in quite a bizarre fashion, despite winning the Supercoppa Italiana and FIFA Club World Cup titles. Similarly, Benitez spent a short time at Chelsea as interim manager — a move that never truly won fans over given his Liverpool roots (despite bringing them European glory). His high-profile move to Real Madrid also ended in farcical circumstances.

His successes far outweigh the failures, though. His work at Newcastle, for example, was outstanding – emphasising his ability to get the most out of players and loyalty to stay at the club despite being in the Championship.

The pinnacle of his career to date is undoubtedly the special night of the Champions League final 2005 – widely regarded as one of the best finals ever. And he is one of the only manager’s in history to have won the UEFA Europa League, UEFA Super Cup, UEFA Champions League, and the FIFA Club World Cup.

What professionals have to say about him

“Rafa is obsessed with football 24 hours a day, seven days a week”, “he is a great man and a great friend”.

Steven Gerrard

“In my mind he is pure managerial genius. Even if Rafa had forcibly removed me from Anfield, he’d still be near the top of my managerial list. Sometimes, talking to Rafa was like when your car windscreen’s iced up on a winter’s morning. You can’t see anything, but when you switch on the de-icer gradually you start to see through the impenetrable barrier of ice, a hazy picture emerges and within two minutes you have a full Technicolor image. Rafa had the ability to achieve this rapid transformation from total blankness to incredible insight in just two minutes. He was incisive. He had the mind of a prosecution barrister and the words of a Spanish troubadour.  

Didi Hamann

“I have learnt more from Rafa Benitez than any other coach I have worked with”.

Craig Bellamy

“I have improved a lot. He made the best of me at Newcastle, so I’m really happy”.

Solomon Rondon

“Rafa was one of the people who changed a little bit the way that the managers teach the player. When I was a player, we were always told: ‘You have to do this, you have to do that, you have to tackle, to defend’. But Rafa was different. Rafa asked the players how they felt and he completely changed the mentality. At a pedagogic level, Rafa was the best coach in my life. In terms of being a professional also, it was really nice to work with him as a player and then as his assistant for three years at Liverpool and Inter Milan. For me, it was like a Masters”.

Mauricio Pellegrino

“In Naples, unfortunately, I didn’t play very much, but I was very lucky to be able to see how the phenomenal Rafa Benitez worked. He is totally focused on football and makes his ideas very clear and easy for the team and individuals to understand”.

Michu

“Napoli is a team to fear. The coach has done a great job and the club has always acted wisely. There has been radical change, but I respect Benitez so much. He has always been a winner”.

Gigi Buffon

“He was particularly important to developing my game as a defender. He is one of the best coaches I’ve ever come across from a defensive point of view”.

Jamie Carragher

“He was, without a doubt, the best tactician I have played for. He could change formation and tactics three times in one game. We practised his different systems so we knew what to do in different ones. I also remember when we went 1-0 down against Barcelona at the Camp Nou. Benítez was there [pushing his hands downwards as to say ‘stay calm’]. A few of us panicked a little bit and thought we’d get our arses kicked but he was ice cool. He just stood there on the sidelines and said: take it easy, carry on doing what you are doing – and in the end we won 2-1”.

Daniel Agger

“He is a great coach and strategist who can’t be described as defensive. Tactically he prepares very well for games, which helps us as players in this area. He’s a great technician who knows when a team needs to attack and attack with all their strength. And when defence is needed it’s the same attention to detail. He understands what could be the key to winning games, and looks at them beyond the context of what’s occured in the last few matches”.

Juan Mata

“Rafa Benitez has been the most important coach in my career. It wasn’t easy for me to leave Atletico, come to England and play in a much faster game that is more dynamic and physical than La Liga. Rafa has been the only one who knew how to help me improve. His priority is the team but he adapts the conditions to make everyone fit in the team. That’s his secret. To do it, he maintains a constant personal dialogue with each player. He taught me a lot and thanks to him I matured as a professional. Without a shadow of a doubt”.

Fernando Torres

“Fundamentally he is a great coach who carefully studies all and each one of the aspects related to football. I had the opportunity to know him when he was the manager of Liverpool FC and I was coach of the Argentine national team. He had in his team several players who were part of our national squad and we were following them. When I was at Melwood, the training ground of LFC, we had the opportunity to speak for five or six hours exclusively about football. At this point he left a great impression on me”.

Maradonna

“Rafa Benítez lifted me out of a dark hole which at the time made me feel like I was 20 metres underground, and put me in a positive frame of mind. Ever since I first played for him we have remained in touch. Most importantly he is a great person and a superb coach and with him you can learn a lot if that’s what you really want”.

Javier Mascherano

“From the minute Rafa accepted the difficult challenge of trying to save Newcastle from relegation, knowing him as I do it didn’t surprise me at all that he stayed with them in the Championship. I saw how the fans loved him, how they were asking him to stay. These are things that Rafa places a lot of value in. I understand that Rafa, who is a person with high values, felt in debt to all these people and accepted the task of taking them back to the Premier. Apart from being a top-class coach, he is a man of commitment”.

Vicente

A highlight of records under Benitez:

For Liverpool:

2005–06

  • Liverpool became the first British club to ‘keep’ the European Champions League trophy after winning it for the 5th time in Istanbul 2005.
  • Liverpool then became the 3rd team and 1st British side to win the Super Cup 3 times
  • Gerrard became the first Liverpool player in history to score in 5 successive European matches
  • Liverpool set a new club record of 11 consecutive clean sheets (Oct-Dec 2005)
  • Liverpool win 10 league games in a row for the 1st time in 15 years

2006–07

  • Benitez became the first manager to lift a trophy in each of his first 2 seasons after the FA Cup win in 2006
  • Liverpool went unbeaten in 30 successive home games
  • Pepe Reina kept more clean sheets in his first 50 league games (28) than any other keeper in Liverpool’s history
  • Liverpool reached their second champions league final in 3 seasons

2007–08

  • Liverpool beat Besiktas 8–0 to record the highest ever Champions League win
  • Benitez won 81 of his first 150 league games in charge, only Kenny Dalglish (87) won more as an LFC manager
  • Torres scored 24 league goals — the most by any LFC player in their debut season
  • Pepe Reina won Golden Glove award for the 3rd successive season
  • Liverpool scored 119 goals — more than any team in England

2008–09

  • Liverpool inflicted Real Madrid’s biggest ever Champions League defeat at Anfield
  • Benitez’ 100th league win as manager in his 181st game. The 3rd quickest ever by an LFC manager and 50 games quicker than Alex Ferguson
  • Liverpool got the highest number of points by any team which failed to win the league (38 game seasons)

2009–10

  • Liverpool unbeaten in 31 home league games
  • Torres broke a club record by scoring his 50th league goals in his first 72 games
  • Reina set a new record of 79 clean sheets in his first 150 games

For Valencia:

  • La Liga (2) — 01–02 and 03–04
  • Uefa Cup (1) — 03–04
  • Valencia’s highest ever win ratio: 53.50%
  • Most trophies by any coach in Valencia’s history

For Inter:

  • Club World Championship (1)
  • Italian Super Cup (1)

For Chelsea:

  • UEFA Europa League (1) – 2012-13

For Napoli:

  • Coppa Italia (1)
  • Supercoppa Italiana (1)

For Newcastle:

  • EFL Championship (1)

Individual

  • La Liga Best Coach: 2002
  • UEFA Manager of the Year: 2003–04, 2004–05
  • European Coach of the Year—Alf Ramsey Award: 2005
  • LMA Special Merit Award: 2006
  • Premier League Manager of the Month: November 2005, December 2005, January 2007, October 2008, March 2009, April 2013, November 2018.
  • EFL Championship Manager of the Month: October 2016

Reminiscing on fond memories, I asked Tom how he remembers Rafa:

“Rafa’s a football genius. Nothing will change my opinion on that.

I loved him, stubbornness and all. He took us to such a good position, amidst challenging times for the club behind the scenes. That 08/09 team with Reina, Agger, Carragher, Mascherano, Alonso, Gerrard & Torres remains one of my favourite Liverpool sides; we really should have won the league that season. 

Rafa got us & got what it meant to be Liverpool to the core. The video of a packed Anfield at the Hillsborough memorial in 2011, crying his eyes out as the crowd chants his name is just pure emotion. He was more than just our manager.”