Benitez – a lifetime of coaching

Rafael Benitez never expected to be a big name player – as a kid he dreamed of being a successful manager. Speaking ahead of the biggest game involving a Liverpool coach for some time, Rafa says: “I knew I wanted to be a coach from the age of 13. When I was 13 I used to write in a book the names of my team mates at Real Madrid and give them marks after every game.  I always wrote down the marks of my team-mates – some of them even knew I was doing it. I was pretending to be manager and thinking about the game. I marked everyone out of three and I always wrote Rafa Benitez – ‘3’. I was always the player of the season for some reason!

Benitez continues: “At 16 I was training and playing football in the
holidays. At 18 I was studying at university as well as training and
playing. I was a player-manager for the university side. At 26 I was
retired as a player – there was just coaching.”

Even as a teenager Benitez was thinking the way coaches think: “I
remember we reached the final of a university tournament in Seville
when I was 18. I noticed the other team were going to a party so I said
to my team-mates we should all go back to the hotel at one o’clock
because we would be fresher than them. Another team mate, who is also
now a coach, said why are we going back? He wanted to go to the party
and chase girls like everyone else. But we went back at one o’clock and
the next day we won the final. Even then I was thinking like a manager!”

Benitez couldn’t continue as a player and made a decision to hang his
boots up relatively early: “At 26 I decided to retire as a player. I
had injured my knee playing for the Spanish Universities representative
team when I was younger and I had problems with it every year. It was
getting worse and at 26 I was playing in the Spanish second division in
Spain and decided that I should give up and start learning to be a
coach.”

He took a job coaching the youth tea at Real Madrid. He remembers it
well: “In my first season in Madrid we won the title and I was just 26.
The first game was at my old university and it was played in my
neighbourhood, on a pitch right behind my house. I remember the
left-back was Torres Mista and he would always overlap. He kept going
forward, I kept telling him to go back, and both times we conceded
goals because of the gaps that he left.”

Milan Baros has been quoted more than once this season about being
unhappy to be left out of the team, but this isn’t something new for
Rafa: “I also had a problem with one of the fathers of the players
before the game too. We had only been allowed 16 players in the squad
but that week the federation changed it to 18 and I didn’t know. One of
the fathers of a player who had been left out came to me and said ‘My
son is the best player, he should be playing’. Anyway, the referee was
one of my team-mates from the university team and when he saw the team
list he said ‘You know you can use 18 players?’ So I ended up picking
the boy in the 18. His father was very pleased – he thought he’d won
the argument.”

Rafa says that managing in England is a different job to that of
coaching in Spain: “It is a lot harder here than it is in Spain. In
Spain you are a coach and here you are manager with a lot of
responsibility. In Spain you have a technical manager who decides the
new players. Here you must decide and each decision is your
responsibility. I prefer it that way because if you win in Spain
everyone talks about you as a good coach but if you lose you will be
sacked. But you don’t sign the players so you can be sacked for the
decisions of others. I prefer to make my own mistakes if necessary. If
you decide the players you want and you know the players it is easier.
You start learning about the players, about the game in England and the
language. Some people say Finnan, Traore and Carragher have played
better this season but maybe other players haven’t played as well as
last season. The balance is more difficult for a foreign manager.”

Benitez has also had to pick up a new language, and that adds to the
difficulties: “It has been harder because I am in a new country with
new players and I need to explain many things that I cannot always
properly. You are a foreigner in a foreign country with players you do
not really know and it is hard to explain things in the way that you
really want to. I can explain in Spanish everything that I have in my
head but, if you are losing a game and you need to say something, it is
hard. Because you have to learn about the players at the same time as
you learn a language it becomes very difficult.”

He’s already spoken about his disappointment over the league position,
but reaching two finals has cheered him up: “When I arrived I was
thinking about being in the top four and getting in some finals,
although I knew it would be difficult. I am happy to have reached the
Carling Cup Final and the final of the Champions League. I am proud. I
have four more years at Liverpool and I am very happy here."

Liverpool led for 80 minutes at Cardiff in that game, and Benitez has
analysed the game and knows what ultimately saw Liverpool lose the cup:
“We made one small mistake in the Carling Cup Final. We played a long
corner when we had been talking about short corners. Chelsea won the
ball, launched a counter attack, won a free-kick and from that Stevie
scored an own goal. Small details change matches. People say I am calm
after winning trophies and maybe that is true but I am always thinking
about the next game.”

Benitez isn’t the type of manager to give his players a roasting: “The
most important thing is to give the players confidence, to give them
answers. If you start saying the right things, and you continue to win,
then they will start to have confidence in you. Football is a special
game – sometimes you can use different styles of managing. If you talk
about spirit, then Jamie Carragher is one of the best; if you are
talking about ability then it would be Steven Gerrard or Xabi Alonso.
Mauricio Pellegrino is the perfect example of my type of player; he
always wants to improve, is always thinking about football.”

Comparing Liverpool to Valencia, Benitez has been amazed at his
treatment on Merseyside: “My mentality is always to learn. My history
with Valencia was really nice but I had problems with the directors in
the club because some of them did not respect me. One of them never
believed in me and said that I could go. At Liverpool they gave me the
freedom to do my job. When you finish only fifth in the league and you
walk around the stadium with people cheering you, well that is a
special moment. That gives me more determination.”

Off the field, Benitez is still obsessed with his football. He tries to
do other things but it doesn’t always work: “If it is possible I play
chess, I talk to my wife and I play with my two children, but my wife
tells me I am always thinking about football. When I go to play with
the children I try not to think about it. But the mobile phone is
always ringing with somebody telling me I can sign this player or that
and even my two girls, Claudia and Agatha, are always talking about
football now. The other morning I told my youngest I was going to work
and she said ‘No, you are going to football’. She doesn’t understand
the difference. Claudia, who is six, speaks English better than me and
tells me that ‘Daddy you always seem to be playing Chelsea’ She follows
football all the time. Her favourite is Mellor. She mentions Hyypia and
Gerrard, but she likes Mellor the best!"