Rafa Benitez is once again being linked with a move back to his home-town club – Real Madrid. The speculation has been re-ignited thanks to a vote amongst Real fans over who should be manager at the Bernabeu for the new season – Benitez got 94% of the vote. Spanish newspapers are now saying that Real Madrid’s headhunters are going to make efforts to take him back to Spain.
Benitez has no intention of leaving – he’s loving his current job and the flexibility he is given over his team selection and player purchases is something he’d never get in Spain. Add to that the fact that he sat on an open top bus on Thursday night listening to the cheers of a million people through the streets of Merseyside – he’s not in a hurry to go home.
First of all, as happy as he is with the Champions League success, he wants league success to go alongside it. He’s got the chance to defend the Champions League trophy a possibility if UEFA’s topmost executives get their way. He’s also looking forward to a Super Cup game in Monaca in August and a World Club championship tournament in Japan in December.
Before he can take his European Champions on into the new season he needs to make some headway on those changes he’s told us he’ll be making over the summer: "My only idea is to prepare the team for the next season."
Madrid isn’t without its appeals: "Of course, I was born there, I have a lot of friends there, I know people in the club, and my family is in Madrid." The main people in his life, his immediate family (his wife and young daughters) are happy with life on Merseyside though, and so is Rafa: "I’m proud of my situation and really happy at Liverpool. I’ve a clear idea about my future and that is to win another trophy, or trophies, next season."
It’s no surprise that Rafa is so popular back in his home country. He was in tears when he left Valencia, a decsion that was made partly because of his difficulties with a president that seemed to be happier to undermine Rafa. This hasn’t been lost on fans of Valencia, who’ve seen their team struggle in Rafa’s absence, and who are said to be planning a celebration of Rafa’s Champions League victory in their final league game this weekend.
Rick Parry is joining Rafa in going through a list of possible targets. Benitez never had the freedom to choose players in Spanish football, a job that’s done by the President usually. Rafa is reviewing the players he’s already got too as he looks to bring the balance he needs to the squad. "I am working now, preparing the future, thinking about what to do and what to say to some players, and establishing if we can sign new players."
Benitez won the Spanish title and the UEFA Cup in the season before he came to Anfield from Valencia, making Wednesday’s win his second successive victory in a European final.
Part of Benitez’s success in Europe has been down to his attention to detail. He said his players wouldn’t practice penalties, but that didn’t stop him studying previous Milan penalties. He passed the information on to hero Jerzy Dudek – who then made his own mind up anyway. Which was just as well, as Rafa explains: ”One or two Milan players changed their habits and Jerzy did a really good job when he went to the other side and saved.”
Benitez gives off a glow of warmth whenever you hear him speak. One of the players he’s brought over to the club is Xabi Alonso, scorer of Liverpool’s third from his rebounded penalty. This was a moment that stood out in Benitez’s mind above all of the happiness of the victory. He’d been worried that the penalty would be saved, and that it would be a bigger blow for Alonso than he could handle. He remembers: "Xabi Alonso with the penalty – when he shot and the goalkeeper saved. Dida is very tall with long arms and I was afraid he would stop it. It brought back memories of when I was playing for Real Madrid’s youth team and missed a penalty against Milan in the Viareggio tournament. We won but it is a terrible feeling and, if Xabi had not shot in the rebound, I feared the sky would have fallen on him.”
Benitez is still picking up the language – and not as quickly as his children. This means Benitez struggles not only to explain himself at press conferences, but also in training and during matches. He wants to cope better than a Yugoslav manager who’d won Serie A with Sampdoria. He remembers: ”You know Vujadin Boskov? Famous manager? Went to Real Madrid, where he had problems speaking Spanish. And when the journalists asked him anything he’d just say the same thing – ‘football is football’. It’s true.”
Odds of up to 350-1 were available on Liverpool at half-time on Wednesday. Any sane person would not have staked more than loose change on the Reds overcoming the odds in that game. Benitez knows that football is a game where the seemingly impossible can happen: ”If you play basketball, and you play against a good team, you know that normally you will lose, because 100 points is a lot. But when you play football a corner or a free-kick might make all the difference. The opposition start making mistakes and you start to win the balls that normally you don’t win.”
So many have – wrongly – criticised Benitez for choosing Harry Kewell to start. Rafa stands by his decision: ”One small thing can change everything. Like when people ask me did I pick the wrong team at the start – I say why? Because if you have Harry Kewell fit, maybe it would be different. If you don’t concede a goal, it would be different for sure. That’s football. Football is football.”
Benitez can say more than "football is football", but he does admit to having struggled on Wednesday: "It’s really difficult to say all the things you want to say in a foreign language. I’d had five minutes thinking about tactics and what I wanted to change and then I walked through the tunnel to the dressing-room, trying to work out how to say it. I’ll tell you an anecdote here. I saw one player in a training session, taking a free-kick, and I told him to be careful of the wine. He looked at me. What I meant was wind. If you change one letter, the meaning can change."
Benitez says his main problem with English is rustiness, and the fact that it’s not even a second language for him. Yet. He says: "I studied mainly French at school, plus a little English, but I had not been speaking English for quite a few years before I came to Liverpool. People say I should take lessons, but I don’t have time. I have a book in my bag and sometimes I read it. I thought I could pick up more of the language by listening to the radio when I was in the car. But the problem as a manager is that, when you’re working, you have to use the telephone. And you cannot listen to the radio when you are speaking on the telephone. Now that the season is over, I should be able to listen to the radio more.”
It’s perhaps as well that he hasn’t listened to the radio too much during his first season – radio shows run phone-ins, and every phone-in seems to be all positive or all negative. It drove Gerard Houllier up the wall, but Benitez seems able to remain focussed – he’ll listen to criticism, and he’ll admit mistakes if he feels he’s made them.
Part of his job as coach, manager and mentor to his players is how he communicates to them. It’s not just about being able to speak the langauge that player speaks, it’s about making sure that player is told what’s going on. He cares about every player at the club: ”You have to speak to them face-to-face because the worst thing is not to tell the truth, to keep people in your squad when they are not playing so that they lose confidence." He’s going to let his wife choose where they go for their short summer holiday this year, it won’t stop him working though: "’I always have my mobile," he says with a smile.
Benitez has already told us that he has been trying to learn the words to "You’ll Never Walk Alone", and that his wife has been reading all of the books on Liverpool’s history she can get her hands on. He’s even listening to music from Liverpool from 40 years ago, The Beatles: "’I have in my car the CDs – ‘I try to listen to them.”
If Benitez did want to leave Liverpool, we doubt he’d be taking all of the trouble he has done to be a part of the club’s history. He’s not just doing a job – it’s more than that to him.