Although Rafa Benitez looks as if he should always have been a manager, in fact he was very nearly a good player as well, having a promising career thwarted by injury. Rafael Benítez Maudes is a native of Madrid, having been born there in 1960 to Francisco, a hotelier and Atlético supporter, and Rosario, a nurse and Real Madrid fan.
Both Rafa’s brother and sister went to university to study veterinary science. Rafa’s potential as a player was spotted at an early age and he was selected to represent Real Madrid’s junior teams from that age. Even at such an early age, though, Rafa had an eye on coaching as he began to coach a local children’s football team. He continued to make progress as a player, though, and eventually played in the Second Division for what is effectively Real Madrid’s reserve team, Castilla CF. With an eye on the future, though, Rafa also studied for a degree in Physical Education at the Polytechnic University in Madrid. During this time, he was selected to represent the Spanish Universities at the World Student Games in Mexico City. Things started well here, with a penalty in a 4 – 0 victory in the first game, but in the following match against Canada, Rafa sustained an injury that was to keep him out for the following year.
On his return to fitness, Benítez helped AD Parla achieve promotion from the Third Division and then became player/coach for the Second Division B side at Linares, although again his playing time was limited because of injury.
Rafa’s first two managerial posts were difficult times for him. First of all, in 1995 at Valladolid he lost his job after 23 games, leaving them at the bottom of the First Division. His second post, at Osasuna the following year, lasted only 9 Second Division games, just one of them a victory. Thankfully, Rafa’s confidence remained undiminished and he was rewarded the following year when he took Extremadura into the top division, although they were relegated after only one season. Rafa then decided to have a sabbatical year and travelled extensively throughout England and Italy, studying coaching methods, whilst doing commentaries for Eurosport and Madrid TV and writing articles for Marca and El Mundo.
He went back into management with the Canary Island side Tenerife, and he took them straight up from Second Division A with a team that included Miguel Mista and Curro Torres, who were to follow him later to Valencia.
The appointment of Rafa Benítez as manager of Valencia in 2001 was not universally popular amongst the club’s supporters who had seen experienced campaigners such as Javier Irureta and Luis Aragonés turn down the opportunity. Benitéz, though, knew that he was taking over a team full of established players – Cañizares, Ayala, Baraja, Albeda, Aimar amongst them – but who were seriously under-performing. The doubters were soon won over, by a much more attacking style that Benitéz introduced and success immediately followed. In 2002, Valencia won La Liga for the first time for 31 years, a feat they repeated in the 2003-2004 season, when they also won the UEFA Cup by beating Olympic Marseille in the final by 2 goals to nil. Imagine, then, the shock to the supporters, who by now, of course, were devoted to their manager, when, at the end of the season, Rafa resigned. It was a very emotional Press Conference at which Rafa announced ‘possibly one of the most difficult decisions I have had to make in my sporting life’ but, just 2 weeks later, at a Press Conference at Anfield, he was able to proclaim, ‘It is a dream to come to one of the best leagues in the world, one of the best teams’, by becoming the new manager of Liverpool FC.
Rafa Benitéz, by now married to Montse, a Doctor of Law, and with two young daughters, has been a success at Liverpool by building on their tremendous European traditions and taking them to two UEFA Champions’ League finals – including that unforgettable victory over Milan in Istanbul in 2005. In addition, they have won the European Super Cup and the FA Cup, and been runners up in the Carling Cup and the FIFA Club World Championship.
Unfortunately for the Liverpool fans, who remain firmly behind their manager, the club have not yet managed to close the gap between themselves and the clubs at the very top of the English Premier League.