Club Legend – Rafa Benítez

Jurgen Klopp-Rafa Benitez

Towards the end of his time at Anfield, there was division within the ranks of Liverpool fans over Rafa Benítez. The Spaniard had won two major trophies during his time in the managerial hot-seat, but a lot of supporters, who really should’ve known better, got caught up in the media’s reports into him. As Benítez took on the owners in an attempt to assemble a better squad to challenge for the title, many referred to him as a ‘fat Spanish waiter’ and other such slurs, primed by the likes of Andy Gray and Richard Keys to dislike one of the best managers we’d had in years.

Thankfully, time has been much kinder to the Spaniard, with even spells in charge of the likes of Chelsea and Everton unable to dull his reputation with a lot of those that know better. By winning the Champions League, the Spanish manager was able to cement his place in the Liverpool record books, whilst adding an FA Cup to the mix and leading us to a title challenge meant that he will always be looked at fondly by those of a certain generation. It also means that he is unquestionably a Liverpool legend, even if he’s unlikely to get a stand named after him.

Benítez The Player & Youth Manager

linares badge former club of rafa benitezDuring his youth, Rafael Benítez Maudes played in midfield for the Real Madrid Aficionados in the Tercera División, as well as for Read Madrid Castilla in the Segunda División. Alongside his playing days, he also studied at the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid, obtaining a degree in physical education. That offers a slight glimpse into the mindset of the young Spaniard, who was determined to push himself at all times. When the World Student Games was played in Mexico City in 1979, Benítez was selected for the Spain Under-19 side, scoring in the open game.

His playing career was never what he would’ve hoped and in 1985 he signed for Segunda División B club Linares, becoming a player/coach under manager Enrique Mateos. Injury problems meant that he eventually retired as a player, then in 1986 he returned to Real Madrid to join the coaching staff there. Aged 26, he was appointed the coach of the Real Madrid Castilla side, winning two league titles. His success saw him replace José Antonio Camacho as the coach of the Under-19 team, with whom he won titles in 1991 and 1993, cementing his reputation by beating Barcelona both times.

In the 1992-1993 campaign, Benítez served as the assistant to Mariano García Remón, the Real Madrid B coach. He succeeded him as manager at the start of the following season before being promoted to become an assistant to Vicente del Bosque with the men’s senior team. It was felt that he had proved himself enough to get jobs away from Real Madrid, leading to him becoming the manager of Real Valladolid for the 1995-1996 campaign. He lasted just 23 games before being sacked with the manager at the bottom of La Liga. Similar experiences at others clubs meant his managerial reputation was hanging by a thread.

After taking a year off from football, travelling to study the game in the likes of Italy and England, Benítez spent some time working as a commentator and analyst for the likes of Eurosport, Marca, El Mundo and local TV in Madrid. In 2000, he took on the manager’s job at Tenerife, putting what he had learned into practice in order to lead the team to third place in the Segunda División, behind Sevilla and Real Betis. One of the players with whom he enjoyed success was Luis García, who he would work with again for more success after moving to Anfield a few years later.

Success At Valencia

valencia cf badge stadium background

Rafael Benítez was appointed as the coach of Valencia in 2001. The club had approached the likes of Luis Aragonés before turning to Benítez. Santiago Cañizares said that the squad was surprised initially, but were won over when he arrived and said to the team, “You come from the Champions League final and I come from Segunda División, but humbly I think I have tools to make you improve.” By introducing a more attacking style of play, Benítez also won over the Valencia fans and their faith was paid back when he won La Liga with them for the first time in 31 years.

The following season was something of a disappointment, with Valencia finishing 18 points behind the title winners Real Madrid. The club bounced back immediately, however, and Benítez was once again able to out-perform footballing giants Real Madrid and Barcelona on the march to another La Liga title. As would become something of a calling card for the Spaniard, Benítez fell out Valencia’s Director of Football when he felt that he wasn’t being given the signings he needed. He said, “I was hoping for a sofa and they’ve brought me a lamp.”

The Move To Anfield

rafa benitez on the liverpool touch lineHaving resigned as the coach of Valencia on the first of June 2004, Rafa was appointed as the Liverpool manager 12 days later, replacing Gérard Houllier. He became the first Spaniard to manage in the Premier League, with his first job being to persuade Steven Gerrard to turn down the overtures of Chelsea and Michael Owen not to move to Real Madrid. He succeeded with the former but failed with the latter, with Owen saying that he wanted to win trophies like the Champions League. Luis García and Xabi Alonso were brought in from La Liga to work with Benítez.

In the league, the Liverpool players struggled to understand what the Spaniard was asking of them. The Reds stumbled to a fifth place finish, also being knocked out of the FA Cup early on. The same wasn’t true in the League Cup, with the Reds making it all the way to the final where they lost to Chelsea after extra-time. It was also a different story in the Champions League, where a Steven Gerrard screamer in the 87th minute gave Liverpool the necessary win to make it out of the group stage, being drawn to face Bayern Leverkusen in the last 16.


flag showing european cup winning managers on the kop monochrome only showing red
Eric The Fish, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The win over Leverkusen set up a quarter-final draw with Juventus, who Liverpool hadn’t played in European competition since the Heysel Stadium Disaster. The club did what it could to show the Italians respect off the pitch, whilst on it we ran out 2-1 winners at Anfield before a 0-0 draw away meant that we’d made it to the semi-finals. Who else but our new foe Chelsea, with José Mourinho having arrived in the Premier League at the same time as Rafa but showing a lot less class in the process. A 0-0 draw at Stamford Bridge meant it was back to Anfield for the decider.

Early on in the game, the referee probably should’ve sent off the Chelsea goalkeeper, Petr Cech, for clattering into Milan Baros, also awarding us a penalty. He didn’t, instead decided to say that Luis García’s shot was a goal when there was debate over whether it had even crossed the line. Whilst Mourinho would whinge about it for years, the reality is that the goal was better for them than a penalty and sending off, as proven by the chance that fell to Eidur Gudjohnsen to win the game for them in the last minute, only for it to flash wide of the post and send Liverpool into the final.

The final, of course, is one of the most famous football matches ever to be played. Taking place at the Attaturk Stadium in Istanbul, the Reds were up against Italian giants AC Milan. That was a tough proposition in and of itself, but when the Italians took the lead after just one minute it looked like an ever tougher ask. Two goals in six minutes from Hernan Crespo meant that it was 3-0 to Milan heading into half-time. The game was considered to be all over bar the signing, with champagne corks popping all over the Italian city. Except, you can never write off Liverpool.

Benítez made changes, bringing on Dietmar Hamman for Steve Finnan, having already replaced Harry Kewell with Vladimír Šmicer. It gave the Reds more defensive solidity and we got back into the game thanks to a Steven Gerrard header after 54 minutes. Two minutes later and Šmicer himself was on the scoresheet, whilst just four minutes later the Reds got a penalty and Alonso converted it after the initial shot was saved. The match went to extra-time when a sublime save from Jerzy Dudek was needed to stop Andriy Shevchenko from scoring, with Dukek then ‘doing a Grobbelaar’ to help us win the European Cup for the fifth time.

Fresh off the back of a Champions League win, which saw us make it back into the competition at Everton’s expense, Liverpool were engaged in another final that ended 3-3 a year later. This time it was against West Ham United, with the Reds once again getting the win courtesy of a penalty shootout, only with Pepe Reina as the saviour. It was Rafa’s second trophy in as many years and gave Liverpool fans confidence that he knew what he was doing; although the win in the European Cup had already cemented his place in the record books and in the hearts of fans.

A Title Challenge & The End Of His Time At Liverpool

Rafa Benitez

In the years that followed that FA Cup success, Benítez managed to build Liverpool into a veritable winning machine. In the 2008-2009 season, we managed our best title challenge for years, pushing Manchester United all the way after having defeated them 4-1 at Old Trafford. Sadly, it wasn’t to be for the Reds and our old enemy won yet another title. All the while, the Spaniard was taking on fights in the boardroom, with the club having been taken over by Tom Hicks and George Gillett. It led to a feeling of division that some supporters were all too quick to blame the manager for.

The 2009-2010 season was less than successful for Rafa, having lost Xabi Alonso and replaced him with an almost-permanently injured Alberto Aquilani. We were knocked out of the Champions League in the group stage and Liverpool fans were openly fighting with each other on the Kop, with some supporting Benítez and others falling for the nonsense being pedalled by certain sections of the media. On the third of June 2010, it was confirmed that Rafa had left the club by ‘mutual consent,’ after we had finished seventh in the Premier League. Proving his class, Benítez made a donation of £96,000 to the Hillsborough Family Support Group shortly after leaving.

Life After Liverpool

rafa benitez managing newcastle fc 2016
Ben Sutherland, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Benítez’s first job after he left the Reds was to sign as the coach of Internazionale. He won the Supercoppa Italiana and the FIFA Club World Cup in 2010, but he was sacked on the 23rd of December 2010. Two years later and he was brought in as the interim coach of Chelsea, which a lot of Liverpool fans didn’t take kindly to. In fact, not many of the Chelsea fans were happy about it, but he won the Europa League with the London club at the end of the 2012-2013 campaign. It was a return to Italy next, with Benítez becoming the manager of Napoli, where he won the Coppa Italia and the Supercoppa Italiana.

On the third of June 2015, Rafa was finally confirmed as the manager at his boyhood club, signing a three-year contract to become Real Madrid’s manager. He lasted less than a year in the role, having his contract terminated on the fourth of January 2016, in spite of the fact that Real were third in La Liga at the time and just four points behind leaders Atlético Madrid. A few months later and he was appointed to the manager’s position at Newcastle United, where he lasted for nearly three years, winning the Championship at the end of the 2016-2017 campaign.

In 2019, Benítez was the manager at the Chinese Super League side Dalian Professional, leaving the club by mutual concern in January of 2021 after suffering from Covid-19. On the 30th of June 2021 the unthinkable happened, with Rafa being appointed the manager of Everton.

Neither set of supporters were happy, with Everton supporters putting a sign up outside his neighbours house, ironically, saying, “We know where you live. Don’t sign.” As the Blues’ form declined, the dislike of Benítez by some Evertonians meant that he couldn’t maintain his position, being sacked in January of 2022.

Rafa Benítez’s Honours List

cartoon benitezHaving ended his time as Liverpool manager with a win percentage of 55.4%, the trophies Benítez has won during his career are as follows:

  • La Liga Titles: 2
  • Supercoppa Italianas: 2
  • Champions Leagues: 1
  • FA Cups: 1
  • FIFA Club World Cups: 1
  • UEFA Super Cups: 1
  • Community Shields: 1
  • Europa Leagues: 1
  • Coppa Italias: 1
  • Championships: 1

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