Rafa Benitez: “Protest banners? There weren’t too many, and they were only A4”

Rafael Benitez
(Image credit: Getty Images)

This interview with Rafa Benitez first appeared in the December 2019 issue of FourFourTwo. Subscribe now!

The rain is pouring down on the Wirral, but we have a treat in store. Rafa Benitez wants to show us his holiday photos.

Normally, such a prospect would fill FourFourTwo with dread; memories are immediately flooding back of family gatherings during our childhood, sitting through slide after slide of vacation snaps from Corfu or Fuengirola. But things are rather more interesting when the man sat in front of you is a Champions League-winning manager.

“This is the hotel in Hong Kong,” says Benitez, swiping through photos on his phone. “This next one is Chongqing from the plane. There was a storm as we landed, but the bridge over the river was like the one in Newcastle.”

All right, technically they are not holiday photos at all. Rafa is enthusiastically showing us images from his first few months in China as manager of Dalian Yifang. The Hong Kong trip was to pick up his visa when he accepted the job in July; the flying visit to Chongqing was to bag a 3-1 away win in the Chinese Super League.

He’s now back in England for a few days during a break in the season – much to the surprise of a staff member at Hickory’s Smokehouse in West Kirby, where Benitez has suggested meeting FFT this Wednesday morning. “Who’s coming?” the bartender enquired, as our photographer started setting up ahead of the interviewee’s arrival. “Our bosses did say it was Rafa, but I didn’t believe them.”

This quiet corner of Merseyside does seem an unexpected spot to find one of the world’s most famous managers – particularly when his day job is 5,250 miles away – but his family remained in the area after his six-year spell at Liverpool ended in 2010. Benitez points and says, “Fifty metres up that hill is the school my daughter went to, and at one stage, when I didn’t have a job, I went to coach the kids on a Friday. One of the parents asked me, ‘Would you mind?’ I said, ‘OK’, and did some training sessions and games. At one of the games, one of the parents from the other team said, ‘Oh, you have a professional coach!’ But I like to coach.”

That is very apparent as Benitez begins to talk about his role at Dalian Yifang. He’s frank enough to admit that he might not have gone to Asia at all had things been different at Newcastle United this summer. But once he takes a job, he pours his heart and soul into it – and it’s clear he has been doing exactly that in Dalian, a port city of more than six million people in the east of China, not far from the North Korean border.

Just like when he first moved to England, then to Italy with Inter and Napoli, he has been trying to embrace every aspect of the experience. 

“The main thing about China is the culture – 5,000 years of it,” he says. “When I go to a new place, my idea is to find out what’s going on. I did it when I came to Liverpool; it was easier here because I’d already been following the Beatles. You go to Chelsea and try to understand what’s going on there, then you go to Newcastle and talk with the Geordies to see how they feel.

“I was lucky because Napoli, Liverpool, Newcastle and Dalian Yifang are similar. They’re not top, top sides – when I arrived at Liverpool, they weren’t – and you have to fight, to compete against the sides who spend more money. You have to create something. We did that at Liverpool. We did that everywhere.”

Dalian Yifang already had Marek Hamsik and Yannick Carrasco on their playing staff when Benitez arrived halfway through the Chinese league season, which runs from March to December, but they’ve never finished higher than 5th in the Super League. They spent three campaigns in the second tier between 2015 and 2017, before finishing 11th last year on their return to the top flight.

When Newcastle failed to convince Benitez to sign a new contract at St James’ Park, and the prospect of a takeover failed to materialise, he moved to China on a two-and-half-year deal. Another season muddling along under Mike Ashley just didn’t appeal any more. “I was waiting for Newcastle until the last minute,” confesses the manager. “But because there was no takeover and nothing was changing, I didn’t want to stay in another survival battle.

“I said, ‘Which are the options we have at the moment?’ The top sides in Europe weren’t available so I said, ‘OK, I have this opportunity’. People say, ‘Oh, but the league isn’t strong’ – yes, I know, but it’s a project, and they want to do well.”

Backed by the Wanda conglomerate, Dalian Yifang are investing heavily in their training ground, and Benitez saw a chance to make a difference.

“When we arrived, the club were 13th in the table, close to relegation,” explains the 59-year-old. “Then we started winning and were very close to the top four. Everybody was expecting things, but the president said, ‘No, the target is to be 8th or 10th, then next year try to do even more’.”

His first move was to sign Salomon Rondon, who’d spent last season on loan at Newcastle before the Magpies stalled on the finances required to make his move permanent. But Benitez is looking longer-term, too.

“The club has something called the Wanda project,” says the Spaniard. “They send kids to Spain – Atletico Madrid, Villarreal, Celta Vigo and Real Sociedad. The kids work with Spanish coaches, then go back. We brought two of them back from Atletico Madrid – they’re the future of the club.

“I brought in a technical director, and now we’re building a structure: a co-ordinator for the youth teams and a co-ordinator for the academy, plus a coach for the reserves, fitness coaches and goalkeeping coaches.

We have 10 people coming from Spain to teach children between six and 10 years old, which isn’t normal in China because they don’t play football at school. There was a time when 50 million people played ping-pong, and from 50 million you can get some good players, for sure. Guangzhou Evergrande, Jiangsu Suning, Shanghai SIPG and Beijing Guoan sign the best Chinese under-23 players, and so there aren’t many on the market. You have to coach your own.

“The Spanish staff will also coach the coaches. Then in the future, if you’re not there, they can carry on doing things in a European way. We’re trying to build something.”

Navigating China’s sometimes-chaotic roads to reach training every morning can be an experience. “The chauffeur arrives at 7.30am, then we go very fast...” chuckles Benitez. “We’re changing lanes all the time – it’s quite exciting!”

One of his biggest challenges has been the language barrier. All of the coaches require an individual translator, and Benitez jokes that it can be akin to a scene from a Marx Brothers film. “Chinese is a difficult language to learn,” he says. “They say you need about five years. Depending on how you pronounce a word, the meaning can change completely. I’ve learned ‘ni hao’ and some other phrases, but then you’ll say something and, no, it’s not the right phrase.

“You have to find the right translator, because he needs to understand how to relay your ideas, he has to help with transfer negotiations, and if you’re furious with the players, he has to be furious, too. The good thing is that he’s always close to you, helping you [pictured on next spread] – the bad thing is that sometimes you turn around and he’s already there! The fourth official sometimes tells him to sit down, as there’s too many people on the touchline. I say, ‘How else can I explain?’”

There were no such problems on Tyneside: Geordie was at least a little easier to master than Mandarin. There, the issues were rather different, although Benitez still reflects fondly on his three-and-a-bit seasons as Newcastle manager. “I think it was quite good,” he says. “I had finished at Real Madrid, and because of the potential, the city and the supporters, Newcastle was a great challenge.”

However, in taking over from Steve McClaren in March 2016, he had to somehow guide the Magpies out of the Premier League relegation zone. “We thought, ‘The team isn’t too bad – maybe we can do it’,” he recalls. “But when I arrived, we had 13 players out injured. Then we were unlucky in the first few games.”

Relegation couldn’t be avoided. When Newcastle hosted Spurs on the final day of the season, Benitez, together with his backroom staff, was undecided about whether to remain as manager in the Championship. “We were [already] relegated and Tottenham were playing for second place,” he says, “but we won 5-1 with 10 men and the fans were singing my name. That was a key point in my decision. The fans were behind me and all the players. We decided to take a massive risk by staying for the Championship, because it’s such a difficult league. The main thing was to get promoted – and we won the league.”

Yet, following Newcastle’s swift return to the Premier League, Benitez was disappointed not to receive more money with which to strengthen the team, and the Spaniard faced an uphill battle to nudge his side into mid-table. “When we got promoted, that was the time to grow,” he says. “OK, we finished 10th, then 13th. It was fine with the resources we had.”

Might a lesser manager have found themselves in a relegation battle? “It was a relegation battle,” he says. “We didn’t win the first few games, but we were consistent in doing things right, and in the end we stayed up. The players fought until the end, and the fans were behind the team. We had unity. That was our strength.”

This summer, though, his contract was coming to an end. Rumours of an imminent takeover abounded, giving Benitez brief hope of a sudden boost to his budget, allowing him to take Newcastle higher up the table. But when that takeover hope faded, it became apparent that he would be back in the same situation as the previous two campaigns, with little prospect of taking the club forward under Mike Ashley’s ownership.

“My idea was to grow; to compete, and to be sure we could challenge,” explains Benitez. “But there was another vision, and that was it. If you see the profit of the team in the last few years, we did what we needed to do to be successful. After that, it’s up to him.

“I still love the city, the fans and the players. My last game as manager was emotional: we won 4-0 at Fulham and the supporters were singing my name at the end, trying to convince me to stay. I have a lot of very good memories. I wish them and Steve Bruce all the best. But I couldn’t stay there just trying to survive for another year.”

After Benitez’s departure, Ashley spoke to a national newspaper and suggested the manager departed only because of the higher wages on offer in China. “I have to answer that because he knows it’s not like that,” says Benitez. “I wouldn’t have stayed in the Championship and said no to massive offers if I was just thinking about that. I waited until the last minute this summer. But I don’t want to create more mess around that situation by talking more about it. I don’t want the fans thinking, ‘Rafa is talking too much about Newcastle’. Now’s the time to move forward.”

Benitez may have made a new start in Asia, but he’s never too far from a reminder about one particular moment in his past – specifically, that evening in 2005 when he became a Liverpool legend for life. That night, his Reds recovered from 3-0 down at half-time to draw 3-3 with Milan in the Champions League final and then win on penalties, ending his first season in England. “I’ve met Liverpool fans more than anyone in China; they always remember Istanbul,” he says, smiling. Who could forget it?

“That was the most emotional final ever – maybe the most emotional final there will ever be. We were 3-0 down, and that Milan team was so good. Some people say, ‘Oh, you were lucky’. No. We were not lucky. You have to win a lot of games to get to the final, and then we won the final.

“People talk about the Bruce Grobbelaar moves and Jamie Carragher telling Jerzy Dudek to do it, but we’d also worked on penalties with our goalkeeping coach, Jose Manuel Ochotorena. We knew four of the Milan penalty-takers and which way they liked to go. That’s a great advantage for a keeper. The next year, we won the FA Cup on penalties, and people said that we were lucky again. But no, because Pepe Reina knew about West Ham’s penalty-takers. That means your staff are doing their work.

“Now, everyone has the stats, but 15, 20, 30 years ago, I had a penalty database for players in Argentina and Brazil, so that when they came to Europe we knew where they put penalties. Then you have an advantage.”

Benitez is rarely an outwardly emotional man on the touchline, but he remembers the emotions that followed victory in Istanbul. “I was proud inside,” he says. “It was the feeling of doing a good job after everything you’ve worked on – preparation, analysis, team talks, your staff working so hard to give you all the information, then making the right decisions. You feel proud of a lot of things.

“Just talking in English at half-time was quite difficult for me back then. When it was 2-0, I was making my notes in English, thinking, ‘We’re 2-0 down – what am I going to say?’ Then we conceded the third goal before half-time and I thought, ‘OK, that’s even worse…’

“Then you have to go in and talk. Believe me, that wasn’t easy. Do you speak any language apart from English? You have to say, ‘Come on, wake up!’, but you need to do it in the right way with the right pronunciation.

“I’ll give you a funny story. That year, we were practising set-pieces at Melwood. It was a windy day and I was telling Steven Gerrard, ‘Be careful with the wine’, because I thought ‘wind’ was pronounced ‘wine’. I’d say, ‘Be careful with the wine’ and they’d start laughing. ‘Be careful with the wine?!’ The pronunciation changed everything. I realised, ‘OK, it’s wind’.

“The year after that, we played Olympiacos in a pre-season friendly. For a year, I had been saying to the players, ‘When you give the ball away, press when losing’. Before the Olympiacos game, Peter Crouch was a new player and I said, ‘If we give the ball away, what do we have to do, Peter?’ He said, ‘Close it down’. I said, ‘No’. I asked Dietmar Hamann and he said, ‘Close it down’. I said, ‘No!’ I asked Djibril Cisse and he said, ‘Press when losing’. I said, ‘Right!’ They all started laughing, because ‘close it down’ meant the same, but at the time I didn’t know that!

“Those two things were funny – it was a training session and a friendly – but imagine you make a mistake with the words you say at half-time in the Champions League final when you’re losing 3-0, and everyone laughs and you lose their concentration. I had to choose my words carefully and say, ‘Calm down. Relax.’ People had their heads down. I said, ‘We’ve been working so hard to be here and we’ve got nothing to lose now, 3-0 down. We have 45 minutes to change it. Get your heads up and start thinking that if we score one goal, we’ll be back in the game.’

“Then I told my assistant, Pako Ayestaran, ‘Get Didi Hamann ready to come on.’ I told Djimi Traore, ‘OK, get changed and have a shower, we’ll play with three at the back: Carragher, Sami Hyypia and Steve Finnan.’ 

“I explained everything, and when I finished going through the game plan for the second half, Didi went to do a warm-up with Pako.

“I was walking around, and then I noticed the physio, Dave Galley, with Finnan. I said, ‘What’s going on?’ Dave said, ‘I don’t think he can play 45 minutes.’ I said, ‘What?!’ I had already made one substitution in the first half, because Harry Kewell was injured and I brought on Vladimir Smicer. Didi would be the second one, and if I had to make another substitution in the second half, I didn’t have any way to react at 3-0 down. So at the last minute I had to say, ‘OK, Djimi Traore, come back.’ Then the three at the back had Djimi instead of Finnan.

“People think we were lucky, but no, we were reacting. You have your staff analysing things, but you have to react. We did it: we put three at the back and were much better in the second half.

“They had Kaka between the lines and two strikers: Andriy Shevchenko and Hernan Crespo. In the first half, we weren’t controlling the middle. At the beginning I thought that with Xabi Alonso and Gerrard, we’d have two players with quality, but Kaka was free because Stevie normally goes box-to-box. When we put Didi on, we had more control, Gerrard was on the right and everywhere, and we had more balance. We were controlling them better. We were more dangerous in the wide areas.

“To be fair, before kick-off we told them, ‘Don’t give the ball away in the first minute.’ Then we gave the ball away for the free-kick and conceded in the first minute! That was against the plan. But the strength was that we reacted well, then the players reacted well.”

Benitez has long been considered one of the world’s great tacticians. He proved it in that Champions League final. 

“I like tactics – I like to play chess and I like to play Stratego,” he says, referring to a board game in which each player controls an army. “I liked it when I was 13, when I was playing and taking notes, and at 17 I was a coach and a player at the same time at university, so I’ve always liked tactics. I went to Italy to watch Arrigo Sacchi, Fabio Capello, and Claudio Ranieri when he was in charge of Fiorentina. I travelled all around the world, analysing tactics.

“But it doesn’t matter what’s inside your head. You can’t lose a game on the blackboard. When you draw arrows on the flipchart, you always win. The other team have a manager, and he’s good, too. You prepare your game plan, but you have to be sure that your players can follow it. If not, it doesn’t matter. It’s not just about being good tactically; you’ve also got to coach the players so they understand what you want to do.”

As a coach, Rafa has never been easily pleased. Captain Gerrard once remarked that it was exceedingly difficult to get a ‘well done’ from him. “Yes, but you’ve been at school, no?” he asks us, with a smile. “Do you remember the nice teachers, or the good teachers who were pushing you? Who got more from you? The ones who were pushing you. If not, you wouldn’t be doing this interview! Normally, the good teachers, the good coaches, push you a little bit more.

“If you see Stevie’s numbers, he was scoring more goals with us. He was playing better with us. If you see the record of Fernando Torres, he had the best record with us. Why? Because you push them nicely and they perform well.

“Stevie was very nice to coach. He was the captain; an example. I’ve had some conversations with him since he joined Rangers: not advice – I don’t say I’m giving him advice – but we will talk about things. He has everything to do well as a manager.”

Gerrard is one of five captains to lift the European Cup with Liverpool, and Benitez is part of an even more exclusive club: just four managers had secured the trophy for the Reds, a fact that clearly means a lot to him. At the start of the interview, as he flicked through his photos from China, he showed us an illustration on his phone that depicted himself, Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan and Jurgen Klopp as the Beatles’ Fab Four, on the zebra crossing at Abbey Road.

He explains, “I was lucky because I came to Liverpool from Valencia after we had won La Liga for the first time in 31 years – two league titles and the UEFA Cup. I am the only manager to have won the UEFA Cup with one team, then the Champions League with another. I was really proud of that.” Jose Mourinho also won the two trophies consecutively, but both were with Porto.

Benitez was in Madrid to see Liverpool win their latest European Cup in June 2019, and soon offered his congratulations to Klopp. “I have a good relationship with him,” reveals the Spaniard. “I sent him a message and said, ‘Welcome to the club’.”

Aided by a solid structure behind the scenes, Klopp put Liverpool in contention once more to win that long-awaited Premier League title. It was the one thing that eluded Benitez during his time on Merseyside. Things weren’t always straightforward back then, under the controversial ownership of Tom Hicks and George Gillett.

“My memories of Liverpool are really good with David Moores, but he couldn’t spend the money to compete against the other teams,” admits Benitez. “When he decided to sell, I think it was to the wrong people. It was very clear – I knew that and the fans knew that, then afterwards was the proof. Now I think they have a model that’s more competitive. They make more right decisions, which means they’re able to compete against Manchester City.”

Despite the difficulties under Hicks and Gillett, Liverpool did lead the Premier League in January 2009. Then came Benitez’s infamous ‘facts’ press conference, railing against Alex Ferguson. Some believe it was the moment they lost the title to Manchester United, but Benitez disagrees.

“People tried to compare that press conference with Kevin Keegan’s [in 1995-96], but it was nothing like that,” he insists. “I was very calm. Everything I was saying was a fact, even though people were laughing about my way of pronouncing the word ‘fact’. But it was very clear – if you analyse it now, I was right.

“Later on, we went to Old Trafford and I remember a father and his son had a banner saying, ‘Rafa is cracking up’. We beat United 4-1. In the last 11 games of the season, our only draw was the 4-4 with Arsenal, when Andrey Arshavin scored four goals. We won 10 out of 11.

“They [Manchester United] had played in the Club World Cup and had a couple of games in hand. They won them and continued winning, but we continued winning as well. That’s not cracking up. People have short memories. They follow the propaganda of the people who are winning.”

Benitez also had a rivalry with Jose Mourinho, and the pair regularly sparred in the press. “He was doing what he had to do, and I was doing what I had to do,” Benitez says now. “That was the reason why Liverpool were competing against a club spending double or triple the money we were spending. But that’s all finished now.”

The very modern Liverpool-Chelsea rivalry made things a little awkward when Benitez became the Blues’ ‘interim manager’ in November 2012. 

However, he does attribute some of the adverse reaction to his arrival in west London to a made-up quote, insisting, “a fan in Slovakia put on Twitter that I’d said I wouldn’t go to Chelsea – I didn’t say that.”

Rafa also shrugs off memories of the banners that several home fans held up at Stamford Bridge, outlining their opposition to his appointment.

“There weren’t too many, to be honest, and they were A4 banners,” he says. “There was animosity from some fans, but I can show you a lot of messages from players, [director] Marina Granovskaia, Abramovich and [technical director] Michael Emenalo. When we played two friendlies at the end of the season against Manchester City in New York, they took me to dinner and said, ‘Thanks very much’.”

That was because Benitez had helped the club overcome a rocky start to the season under Roberto Di Matteo. Rafa led the Blues to 3rd spot in the Premier League and an automatic Champions League place, before lifting the Europa League thanks to Branislav Ivanovic’s last-gasp header against Benfica in Amsterdam.

“The main thing for Abramovich was to be in the top three – that was his priority,” explains Benitez. “They were really pleased with that, and at the same time, we won the Europa League.

“Again, credit to my staff, because we were practising corners before the game. Benfica had zonal marking, but with a diagonal line. We were trying to block the last man and attack with Ivanovic at the back post. We practised in training and Juan Mata was a disaster kicking the ball! But in the last minute of the final, we got a corner, Mata kicked the ball perfectly, Ivanovic scored and we won.”

Benitez was only ever scheduled to spend six months in west London. Leaving Real Madrid after seven months was a little more unexpected. Appointed manager before the 2015-16 campaign, he was shown the door by Florentino Perez at the turn of the year, before Zinedine Zidane swept in and won the Champions League that same season as the first of three consecutive triumphs.

“I’d had the offer from Real Madrid two or three times before,” reveals Benitez, who had, after all, kicked off his managerial career with a spell in charge of the club’s B team. “I thought, ‘OK, maybe now is the time’. I had more experience. But we lost at home to Barcelona.

“The fans were against the president, and that was the key point. As soon as the fans are upset with the decisions at the top, the manager is under pressure. People don’t remember that we were only two points behind Barça, that we scored eight goals against Malmo and 10 against Rayo Vallecano, and that we had finished top of our Champions League group ahead of Paris Saint-Germain.”

The biggest setback came when Los Blancos were thrown out of the Copa del Rey for fielding the ineligible Denis Cheryshev in a game against third-tier Cadiz, because of confusion over a suspension carried over from the previous campaign. “When we picked Cheryshev, I asked the team manager three times,” recalls Benitez, ruefully. “I said, ‘Any problems?’ They said, ‘No, no chance’. I said, ‘OK, fine’. Three times – the day before, when we picked the squad, and two times on the day of the game.”

But Benitez is keen to dispel the perception that he endured a difficult relationship with Real’s star players. He denies reports that he angered Cristiano Ronaldo by asking the forward to undergo a study to improve his free-kick accuracy.

“No, not true,” he insists. “I was analysing his free-kicks when he was at Manchester United – that was the only conversation I had with him about free-kicks, and I think he was fine. I didn’t practise free-kicks with him, because I knew he was a top-class player. He was a worker; he was taking care of himself. He was not a problem.”

Benitez’s Dalian Yifang contract was due to run until the end of 2021 (he eventually left un January 2021). 

He would like to return to the Premier League one day. “For sure,” he says. “I decided to join Dalian because the top six in England was difficult and the other teams close to the top six had managers, so you can either stay at home watching the telly or do what you enjoy: coaching players.

“I want to compete, and if I can’t compete at the level I want – to win trophies – then I want a project to build something, so that later you are more competitive. In the meantime, if they pay you lots of money, fine. What can I say?”

Does he believe he deserves another crack at a top-six job in England? “The problem,” he admits, “is that Chelsea and Manchester United were almost impossible for me because people talk about things in the past. Manchester City and Liverpool won’t change, Spurs won’t change, and Arsenal appointed Unai Emery.”

Had Arsenal been a possibility, when Arsene Wenger departed the club in 2018? “At the beginning they were talking options, but you never know until they decide,” says Benitez.

What about the England job? Would he fancy that one day if Gareth Southgate moved on? “I want to coach every week,” he affirms. “But in a couple of years? You never know. I’m open to anything. 

“But,” he adds with a knowing smile, “that’s not ‘Rafa is applying to be the England manager’.”

One way or another, it’s highly likely that he will be back in the English game at some point. Until his return, he will continue to pour his heart and soul into the job he is doing, because Benitez knows no other way. His aim is crystal clear. “We want to leave a legacy,” he says. “We want to be sure that when we leave, they say, ‘OK, they did a good job’.”

It’s a sentiment that fans of Liverpool and Newcastle can more than identify with. In two of England’s biggest cities, Rafa Benitez’s legacy is already secure – and that’s a fact.

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