Club Website editor Dan Pope speaks to the ex-Liverpool manager about his journey from the lower reaches of the Spanish game to the top table of European football.
As I wait to speak to Rafa Benitez, I wonder how my first question will go down.
We’re in a swish central London hotel, the man who bought the European Cup back to Anfield is promoting his new book, Champions League Dreams, and waiting in the queue with me are journalists from the official Champions League magazine and Sky Sports News.
All very top end of the game.
I’m unsure how a series of questions about grassroots football will go down, but the very mention of the ‘g’ word and Benitez’s eyes light up.
The Spaniard cut his managerial teeth in the lower echelons of the game in his native country and he appears to recall the time with fondness.
Like all football-mad youngsters, Rafael Benitez Maudes dreamed of making it as a professional. A keen sportsman and successful footballer with his school, he joined Real Madrid’s academy at the age of 13 and worked his way up through the ranks to play for the Aficionados, Real Madrid’s third team, whilst also studying hard at school.
Despite “just wanting to be a player” in those early days, some of his behaviour as a young academy member hinted at where his future career may lie.
He made notes about “every game, every day” – whether about his team mates, top scorers or statistics from the games. “I was thinking about the game, wanting to understand the game,” he says.
Despite enjoying acting as player-coach when required, Benitez didn’t consider a move into coaching until an injury as a 19-year-old forced him to reconsider. He continued to play in the lower leagues, but never fully recovered.
“After the injury I could see that it would be difficult for me to be in a top side in La Liga. I realised that I had to go another way,” he recalls. “So I went to university and did a degree in Physical Education. I knew that I could be a coach and that I would like to be a coach, to be fair.”
Benitez hung up his boots at the age of 26 and took up a position as the coach of Real Madrid’s under-16s, where his coaching career stepped up a level, as did Benitez’s dedication to learn.
“I was always seeking a lot of information, analysing everything, watching a lot of games.
“Sometimes I would watch three games at the same time, from the stands by the side of the pitch. You could see a little bit of each game, so I was taking notes on players.”
Once again Benitez worked his way up through the Madrid ranks, promoted to coach the under-19s – where he won a league title and two cups in three seasons – and then Real’s second team, Castilla CF, in the Spanish second division before becoming assistant to first team coach Vicente Del Bosque.
Having never made it as a player, Benitez felt he had to work even harder in those early days.
“It’s difficult at beginning, because you’re not a famous player, so you have to work very, very hard.”
Knowing the top job at Madrid would never come his way, Benitez moved away from the capital and into first team management. His first two positions – at Real Valladolid and Osasauna – were a struggle but his belief was unshaken.
Having coached both Extremadura and Tenerife to promotion to La Liga’s Primera Division, he landed his first big coaching job at Valencia, where he made his name across Europe.
In three seasons Valencia won two league titles and a UEFA Cup, despite the presence of Real’s ‘Galacticos’ and the giants of Barcelona. Benitez is not alone when he recalls those achievements as a “great success”.
His next move was to manage overseas and to the position for which he is best known in this country – manager of Liverpool Football Club.
Success came almost overnight, with a Champions League trophy delivered in his first season.
An FA Cup followed, as did five other memorable European campaigns, including victories over all of the giants of European football, memories fondly recalled in Champions League Dreams.
Although the sought-after league title remained elusive, Liverpool’s second place in 2008/09 was their best-ever finish to a Premier League season and Benitez’s record is the best of any Liverpool manager in the last 20 years.
“Liverpool was special,” the Spaniard recalls.
“Why? Because it was in another country, another language, so it’s not easy to communicate and you need to understand the mentality. Explaining things and pushing players to think about the game, here it takes some time, but still we had success in the first year.”
“I think it was really good in terms of the adaptation to a different country, a different culture and a different competition.”
The 52-year old adapted to the country so well that he and his family continue to live here so, despite being out of work for almost two years – his most recent job at Inter Milan lasted just six months, despite winning the Italian Super Cup and FIFA World Club Cup – he has kept a firm eye on developments in the English game.
Since Benitez arrived in England, Spain have gone from perennial under-achievers on the international stage to the dominant force in world football.
With their short, sharp passing game, or ‘tiki-taka’, La Roja and Barcelona have, for many, re-defined how the game should be played, causing football administrators the world over to look to the ‘Spanish model’ as the way forward to achieve success.
The Football Association hopes that the new national football centre and ‘coaching mecca’ at St George’s Park and the upcoming changes to kids football will see a brighter future for the English game.
Benitez recognises the positive steps taken, but he believes that if real progress is to be made, a change of mindset is required throughout the game.
“In England we now have the possibility to improve the players, but there has to be a change of mentality.”
“The main thing will be to technically improve the players, they have to be in contact with the ball.
“You can play seven-a-side or you can play nine-a-side, but I’ve seen in England, I think at under-10s, they had one player that was really good and his throw-in was massive, so he just threw the ball into the box.
“So it doesn’t matter if the pitch is small. If you have someone that is so big that they can throw the ball into the box, some people are going to change their style.
“You have to say ‘OK, we will try to play on the floor’, but sometimes they don’t understand that to play on the floor is not [necessarily] to play in the style of Barcelona.
“To play on the floor is a part of the game, but if you have to play direct football you can do that too. It’s not a problem.
“But you have to have this idea that we will try to play the ball. It’s not just a case of throwing it into the box and seeing what happens.”
“So it’s more the mentality than the number of players and the size of the pitch that matters. This can help, but it’s not enough alone.”
The FA’s overhaul of the youth football system – set to be in place for the 2014/15 season – may go some of the way but, if Benitez is right, for the changes to really count the FA must get everyone involved in their Future Game philosophy of playing the ball out from the back and ‘through the thirds’ up the pitch.
Placing an emphasis on enjoyment and technical development over results is a culture change that may be difficult to achieve but, whatever the outcome, Benitez should be around to witness the results from close proximity.
He still lives on Merseyside and has taken the city to his heart as the fans of Liverpool have him to theirs. His youngest daughter considers herself a Scouser and he is truly at home there.
It may seem a long way from his humble beginnings in the lower ranks of Spanish football but, despite his current break from football management, one thing hasn’t changed.
Whether working as a TV pundit or analysing games for his website – rafabenitez.com – Benitez continues to do what he has always done: study the game.
If my short time with him is anything to go by, his appetite for the game remains undiminished.
He will no doubt return to the game before too long and, when he does, expect him to employ the same principles that he always has: work hard and study.
It has been Benitez’s way since his very early days in the game and it remains his message to grassroots footballers and coaches everywhere.
“As a player, it’s just keep working hard. Hopefully you will have a good coach to give you the tips and the advice that you need. The main thing for you is that you have to keep fighting, keep working hard.
“As a coach, it’s more or less the same, but, whilst players can effect things on the pitch, for the coach it depends on others. So you have to keep reading books, talking with people, watching games in different ways to analyse things.
“You have to think about the game. You don’t just watch a game. You have to think about what you are trying to do in a game and how what you’ve seen in another game can help you do things differently.
“You have to think all of the time and you will improve yourself, but don’t forget, all managers they have to come from the grassroots.”
Dan Pope, Club Website editor