Given the outcry in some quarters over Real Madrid’s appointment of Rafael Benitez as their new manager, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the club had got their famous footballing Bs mixed up and were about to install Sepp Blatter in the role.
It’s true that the sacking of Carlo Ancelotti – whose team won 30 of their 38 league matches this season, scored eight more goals than champions Barcelona and were parading the Champions League trophy around Lisbon a year ago this week – was bizarre, but when have Real been anything other than that? Jose Mourinho lasted three years in the dugout at the Bernabeu, and that’s longer than the other 10 men appointed this century.
The manager’s office at the Valdebebas training ground doesn’t so much have a revolving door as no door at all, with failure in either La Liga or the Champions League – whichever one suits – allowing Florentino Perez to boot the ‘boss’ out into the street and remind everyone that there is no need for air quotes around his own title.
So in you come Rafa, welcome to the mad house. But who is the mad one here? Is it the former Valencia, Liverpool, Inter Milan, Chelsea and Napoli manager, or is it ‘Los Blancos’ for appointing him?
Plenty would have you believe it’s the latter, but Benitez enters the Bernabeu – where he used to play for and coach Real’s B team – with a legitimate claim to be one of the best coaches available in the world game.
In terms of European trophies collected, the Spaniard sits in the top 10 of all-time thanks to his UEFA Cup with Valencia, Champions League with Liverpool and Europa League with Chelsea. The scoffing is audible from here, but isn’t that a record which should be respected?
Instead, Benitez finds himself on the end of crude jibes about his managerial ability, his suitability for the role at Real and sometimes even his weight.
Why? It’s difficult to put your finger on exactly, but in England a mistrust and dislike of him seems to stem from his decisions to take on both Sir Alex Ferguson and Mourinho during his time at Liverpool.
The Mourinho case was a fairly obvious rivalry, given that both men arrived in England in the summer of 2004 and then almost instantly turned Liverpool v Chelsea into a grudge match for the ages, with two Champions League and one FA Cup semi-final and a League Cup final all happening in their first three seasons.
Both men played similar, often dour football, but given Mourinho’s box office, quotable nature then it was easy to establish the good guy and the bad guy. In his battles with Ferguson – including the infamous ‘facts’ episode – Benitez only made one mistake; his teams didn’t win enough on the pitch when it mattered most, the new Liverpool way.
It wasn’t just these head-to-head tussles which fostered an unpopularity, though. By the end of his tenure at Anfield there were plenty of Reds fans who had grown tired of his tactics and his mannerisms and were happy to see him replaced by Roy Hodgson. We’ll just leave that one there.
A disappointing spell at an ageing Inter followed, and then when he returned to England he did so at Chelsea where he walked into a bizarre union of the tribal nature of modern football and the social media age.
As Benitez later stressed in several interviews, he never uttered words which were attributed to him which appeared to criticise both the Blues and their fans – the very same words which were taken to heart at Stamford Bridge and made his six-month tenure at the club (an ‘interim’ one as they were only too keen to point out) something of a living hell. They were months which ended with Champions League qualification and the lifting of the Europa League trophy.
Since moving onto Napoli he’s earned a third place finish and only missed out on Champions League football this time around because of a missed penalty from Gonzalo Higuain on the final day of the season, yet he’s still written off by many and seen as not suitable for the Real Madrid job.
In ideal world he wouldn’t even need to be considered for it right now as Ancelotti – one of only two managers to have won three European Cups as that above graphic shows – would still be in place, but its nonsense to believe that Benitez doesn’t deserve a crack at managing a club he first got involved with at the age of 14.
Like so many others before him it is likely to end in a messy divorce in a year or two’s time, but he’ll know that going in.
That’s just the way of things at the Bernabeu, and it’s a challenge Benitez should be allowed to embrace on his own terms.
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