Born in Madrid in 1960, Rafael or ‘Rafa’ Benitez, as he is more commonly known by the English press, is recognised as one of the most successful Liverpool managers of all time. In his relatively short three-year spell at the club, he has amassed various pieces of silverware. He became only the second Liverpool manager to win the European Cup/ UEFA Champions League in his first season in charge. It was Joe Fagan who last achieved this feat.
Benitez also has European Sup Cup, FA Cup and FA Community Shield winners’ medals. However, he has received much criticism over his rotation policy which has seen Liverpool fail to mount a serious title challenge since he has been at the helm. Many supporters and fans do believe that with the financial backing of American co-owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett, Benitez can bring back the glory days to Anfield.
Player or Coach?
Although it is his coaching that has made him the man he is today, Benitez did enjoy a fairly successful playing career. At the age of twelve he joined the Real Madrid youth academy. It was only a year later when he got his first taste of coaching, as he began training a children’s football team. After progressing through the ranks at Real Madrid, he played as a midfielder for both Real Madrid Aficionados and Castilla CF, who are Real Madrid’s second reserve team and reserve team respectively. Benitez also acquired a degree in Physical Education from a Madrid University in 1982.
During his time at university, he was selected to play for the Spanish University’s XI at the World Student Games in Mexico City. However, he received a bad injury in the second game against Canada which saw him sidelined for a year. This effectively ended any chance the Spaniard had of becoming a key player at Real Madrid. He then moved on to various second division teams in Spain before he was forced to hang up his boots in 1986 after further injury problems.
His first attempts at senior management away from his beloved Real Madrid were less than successful. In 1995, Benitez was appointed as manager of Real Valladolid but was sensationally sacked after he could only manage two wins in 23 games, with the club rooted to the bottom of the Primera División. The following season, Benitez again failed to show off his coaching credentials when he was sacked as Osasuna boss after just nine matches, in which he only managed one victory. It was after this that Benitez started to earn a reputation as a promotion specialist.
In 1997, he joined another Segunda División side, CF Extremadura, and led them to promotion. Unfortunately, this fairytale didn’t last long, and CF Extremadura were subsequently relegated from the Premier Division in 1999.
Benitez then decided to take a year out to study coaching methods in England and Italy. This is the period in which many believe the Spaniard started to gain the experience which would set him up as an ideal target for a Premier League side in the future. He studied coaching at Manchester United and Arsenal again another indication that England would be a place where one day he would be applying his trade.
The Spaniard returned to management in 2000, when he was appointed manager of Segunda Divisón side CD Tenerife, where he again gained promotion to La Liga. Benitez’s reputation was growing, and a year later another fairytale success story would start, but this time at a much bigger club.
Benitez became the most successful manager in the Valencia’s history after just three seasons in charge. Benitez was appointed in 2001 and replaced Hector Cuper at the realm. It has to be said that he did inherit a team with masses of potential, but it was the way Benitez crafted the team around an attacking style of play that won over the Valencia faithful, and brought the club major honours.
In 2002, he helped Valencia to be crowned Champions of Spain for the first time in over thirty years. Two years later he led Los Che (Valencia’s nickname)to a double, winning both La Liga and the UEFA Cup.
Benitez then fell out with the club’s director of sport, Jesus Garcia Pitarch, over the club’s failure to buy the players that Benitez had singled out. It was because of this row that Benitez resigned as Valencia manager in 2004.
Benitez was appointed Liverpool manager in June 2004, and immediately put his Spanish influence on the team, signing various La Liga stars such as Xabi Alonso and Luis Garcia. Although ‘Rafa’ failed to improve Liverpool’s form in the Premiership, as they finished fifth, it was in the UEFA Champions League where he showed himself to be one of the shrewdest managers around.
Liverpool’s European campaign started poorly, after they could only manage a 2-1 aggregate win over Grazer AK in the qualifying rounds. They were also lucky to reach the last sixteen of the competition, after a last minute screamer from captain Steven Gerrard secured a 3-1 win against Olympiakos. It was after this when Benitez really excelled, masterminding aggregate wins against Bayer Leverkusen and Juventus to set up a mouth-watering semi-final against Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea. In the build up to the game, Chelsea were strong favourites to win having just defeated Barcelona in the previous round, and were runaway leaders in the Premier League. After a goalless leg at Stamford Bridge, a controversial goal from Luis Garcia was enough to book Liverpool’s place in the final, where they met Italian giants AC Milan. And what a final it was.
At half time, Liverpool found themselves 3-0 down thanks to goals from Paulo Maldini and a Hernan Crespo brace. Benitez made a change at the break, and introduced Dietmar Hamann for Steven Finnan. The plan worked and within fifteen minutes, Liverpool had recovered the seemingly unassailable three-goal deficit and drew level with goals from Steven Gerrard, Vladamir Smicer and Xabi Alonso. The game went to extra-time, and then penalties. Jerzy Dudek was the hero, saving Andriy Shevchenko’s penalty to ensure Liverpool’s historic fifth European Cup.
New Era at Anfield
In February 2007, American tycoons George Gillet and Tom Hicks agreed a deal to take over Liverpool. This meant that Rafael Benitez had additional transfer funds for the upcoming season. He now had the fire power to narrow the gap between Liverpool and the likes of Manchester United and Chelsea, who were previous Premier League winners. This was an interesting time for Benitez, as he had never found himself in a situation where he had virtually unlimited funds. He spent wisely and smashed the club’s transfer record to sign Spanish superstar Fernando Torres from Athletico Madrid. He also brought in young Dutch winger Ryan Babel, Yossi Benayoun, Andriy Voronin on a free transfer along with Brazilian midfielder Lucas Leiva.
Liverpool started well in the new season and were unbeaten in the league until they lost in December.
With the financial backing now in place, there can be no doubt that Rafael Benitez will take Liverpool to greater things. Having already won the Champions League, Benitez now has his eyes set on the Premier League title. Who’s to say that one day, he might be as close to Liverpool fan’s hearts as true Liverpool greats, Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley?
- UEFA Champions League 2005
- European Super Cup 2005
- FA Cup 2006
- FA Community Shield 2006
- Spanish League Championship 2002, 2004
- UEFA Cup 2004
- Awarded Manager of the year by Don Balón and El Pais 2002