Rafa Benitez – from a playing career cut short by injury to the heights of the Champions League Final and his latest venture

Now managing Napoli in Italy, Rafael Benitez Maudes has so far had a mostly successful career. Despite a torrid end to his time in England that saw Liverpool rise to the top of European football, Rafa Benitez is a man that commands great respect in the football world. Known for his in-depth analysis and knowledge of the game he is a master tactician of the game.

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. Having bought great success to Liverpool, many of the fans were left unhappy with the way that the love affair between Benitez and LFC came to an end, mainly 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. This article will take a look into Rafa’s life and philosophy.

I expect many 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. He began his path in 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 for Benitez a terrible knee injury set his football career back and he was promptly loaned out of Madrid. After spending a few years on loan from Real Madrid, years blighted by recurring knee problems, Benitez retired early at the age of 26. He swiftly became the Technical Director for Madrid and then went on to become u19 manager, winning 2 league titles and a cup in 3 years. Following his first success at youth management level, then Madrid manager Vicente Del Bosque offered Benitez the assistant manager role. After excelling in previous roles it was clear to see that Benitez had what it takes to be a great manager and a job offer followed. Going solo Benitez 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.

Jumping at the chance to manage such a major team, success was soon to follow. Under Benitez, Valencia began playing a style of football that saw them rise above the rest to 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 Atletico Madrid. He continued to win trophies for Valencia before being offered a new challenge at the historically rich Liverpool. Benitez was awarded the Golden Club Crest for the work he did for Valencia by the club President in 2011. Following his time in Spain, he became the first ever Spanish manager for LFC. Going on to take Liverpool to the top of Europe’s elite and to their highest ever Premier League finish was just part of the story that saw Benitez gain love at Anfield.

Married with children, Benitez has dedicated his life to football and his family. His emotions have caused people to love him, yet have also at times 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 visible 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 afterward. Other outbursts include his rant about Sir Alex Ferguson and the power that he had over referees and other aspects of the game, a move that afterwards saw Liverpool slump in form.

With Brendan Rodgers now at the helm at LFC, Benitez came close to the job vacancy himself. With owners who could offer him stability rather than the turbulence he received before I feel that he could have thrived. Despite some poor signings such as Robbie Keane and Aquilani he also brought world class players to the club: Reina, Alonso, Torres, Mascherano, Johnson to name a few. One of the best performances I have seen LFC play is when the mighty Real Madrid, captained by the World Player of the Year Fabio Cannavaro, got hammered 4-0 with Torres and co giving them the run-around. Benitez’ philosophy and style of football was admirable and his tactical genius got the better of many world-class managers – Ferguson, Mourinho and Wenger.

Even now Liverpool are reaping the benefits of Benitez’ work. Not many people give him credit for the youth setup at Liverpool – as many simply do not know. The likes of Kelly, Spearing, Sterling, Suso, Morgan, Coady, Wisdom, Shelvey, Pacheco and so on have gone on to make first team appearances and some are now firm fixtures in the senior squad. Before Benitez, Liverpool’s reserve and youth setup was nowhere near the standard it now is. After coming in 3rd place in the Nextgen series Champions League (youth CL) it is evident that LFC youth teams have a lot of talent and a lot of this is due to the work that Benitez put in to change the structure of the club top-to-bottom.

It has not all been plain sailing for Benitez however. As mentioned his time at Inter was short-lived and ended in quite a bizarre fashion. Similarly, Benitez spent a short time at Chelsea as interim manager – a move that never truly won fans over given his Liverpool roots. Now at Napoli it remains to be seen if he can capitalise on the poor standard of the Italian league and big money moves for Higuain from Madrid, as well as the loan signing of his ex Liverpool goalkeeper Pepe Reina, could help push for a title bid. The heights of the Champions League Final of 05 with Liverpool is by far the pinnacle of his career to date and is widely regarded as one of the best finals ever. Whilst success on the scale with Napoli is unlikely, he will be hoping to put bad by his standard experiences with Inter and Chelsea behind him and immerse himself in the world of football, a world he truly loves.

 

What professionals have to say about him?

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

Hamann – “in my mind he is pure managerial genius”

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

 

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 a 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 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 – 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)

 

Chris Smith
Founder of Vivi Nation, sports enthusiast, occasional triathlete, keen cyclist and optimistic Liverpool FC fan.

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