The news that Rafa Benitez is to be the next manager of Real Madrid and not the new manager of West Ham United – as had been feverishly speculated in the English press – filled me with joy.
I bet that wasn’t a decision that took Rafa long to make. Typically, that job speculation under-estimated the man. With a CV better than almost every other manager, becoming boss at the Hammers can’t have been too high on his list of must-have jobs. There’s a seam of dislike to Rafa in the English media because he would not suck up to them during his Liverpool and Chelsea tenures. Quite the reverse, in fact. This has not been forgotten nor forgiven and no amount of being any good at the job will wipe that away.
It should also be stated from the start that I am an acolyte of Rafa – a Rafalyte, if you will. I don’t care if he’s successful or not. I know his sides don’t play the best football, or have the best players, and he can be a defensive, negative coach. I don’t care about any of that because there’s nothing I don’t like about him. The rotund sauce-on-the-shirt appearance. The waddling. The ebb and flow of beard. The refusal to celebrate any goals ever. The quiet taking of notes even in the most extreme circumstances, the sticking it up the hateful Chelsea fans in the most bizarre way possible – by winning a major trophy. The lists. The facts. The staring in a vaguely bemused way as if he’s listening in one ear to someone telling jokes about the interviewer. The way he says quality as kwallity. It is all a form of performance art to me.
Obviously, he’s also a really good manager, with a hell of a list of trophies to his name so far – and it’s worth remembering that at 55, he’s got a lot of years in him yet. But sometimes you could be forgiven for thinking he’d not done much really. In fact, pretty much the only thing you’ll hear from some sections of the English press is that he told John Terry he couldn’t play twice a week and, oh ho, how wrong was he, because look at him now. Yeah, Rafa doesn’t care. Right? Not bothered at all. He won a big trophy without Terry in the most extreme circumstances. But you can’t do that without attracting the long-lived ire of some in the media. But, of course, it only made we Rafalytes love him more when we saw him make Big JT sit on the bench.
In England, much lesser men are vaunted much more than Rafa. Men who are puny mortals in comparison. Arsene Wenger is slavered over but my God, his European achievements are pathetic in comparison. And let’s not even bother comparing him to the likes of Sam Allardyce, who he was slated to replace in east London. Brendan Rodgers is a Rafa wannabee and not even a very good one.
I always liked Rafa for what he was, but also for what he wasn’t. At a time when the English press was berating Sven-Goran Eriksson for not showing enough passion on the touchline, because passion, they vomited in ignorance, was somehow an indicator of how good you were – Rafa wasn’t having any of that. He might be writing an essay in the dug-out. He might be writing love poetry. The one thing he won’t be doing is leaping up and down and playing the giddy goat.
Inscrutable like a Spanish Buddha, he would look at anyone who suggested he get up and shout a lot more with the amused disdain of a man who knew he was a superior intellect. That’s probably why so many of them want to dismiss his achievements and are even now sneering at his appointment to one of the biggest jobs in world football. Some would have been less surprised if Madrid had appointed David Moyes, and they probably think he’s better than Rafa, anyway.
This is as high a profile appointment as it’s possible to have in football, but it won’t affect Rafa. He’ll do his usual rather unassuming shrug, half-smile and take it all in his stride. The chances are he’ll win in Europe but fail in the league. That’s what he tends to do and that’s also why we love him.