Rafa Benítez spoke about his time at Celta Vigo, his family, and the demand for Xabi Alonso, describing it as “an addiction”.

Estimated read time 10 min read


Rafa Benítez enters the hotel bar confidently, greeting everyone with a friendly smile and a strong handshake. He seems completely content as he takes in the sunshine on the beautiful Galician coast. The bar offers a stunning view of the picturesque Ría de Vigo estuary, with its rocky coves and secret beaches. He strongly recommends trying the octopus dish, a delicacy of the area.

A 63-year-old traveling super-coach, who is at risk of being fired, is described by the local newspaper as leading a life full of challenges. According to the news outlet, Benítez’s Celta Vigo will face Almería, the team at the bottom of the league, on Friday. The paper emphasizes that it is a game that must be won.

It would take too long to give full justice to Celta Vigo’s travails this season, though special mentions for being 2-0 up at Barcelona with nine minutes to play but losing 3-2; and the last-minute penalty that denied them against Sevilla, a decision so egregious it caused their star player, Iago Aspas, to seize the ref’s pitch-side TV monitor and smash it to the ground. (Who hasn’t wanted to do that?)

It can be stated that in their 100th year, Benitez was brought in to revitalize a club with a rich history – having reached the Europa League semi-finals in 2017, but struggling with relegation as of late. Currently, they sit in 4th from the bottom. In their most recent match, they were leading 2-0 against Cádiz, who sit just above them in rankings, but ended up conceding a goal in the 10th minute of stoppage time – a representation of their entire season.

Benítez lets out a resigned sigh while smiling, bringing focus to the forecasts forecasting his downfall. There is a moment in a coach’s profession when one has truly witnessed everything. Vigo is a bustling harbor and the fishing boats of Spain set off from here into the vast Atlantic. Similar to a skilled sea captain who has weathered this tumultuous stretch of sea countless times, Benítez appears unfazed by these nearby storms.

Rafa BenítezView image in fullscreen

This is not to imply that he lacks concern. He goes into great detail, expressing strong emotions, about the challenges that stem from a complicated dynamic with the previous sporting director. (Benítez famously summarized the relationship between sporting director and coach as: “I requested a table and he gave me a lampshade.”) According to Benítez, the presence of a new sporting director has greatly improved communication.

The player known for his heroics in the 2005 Istanbul match, winning La Liga twice and breaking the dominance of Barcelona and Real Madrid, being a champion in both England and Italy, lifting the Europa League trophy at Chelsea and winning the World Club Cup with Inter, is currently in Vigo. He could have been in Merseyside with his wife Montse, who happens to be from Galicia. Instead, he is spending his time counting his fortune.

My wife and I often have this conversation: ‘Oh, let’s spend time with the family,’ he says with a smile. “I may be able to spend a few months with them, but eventually I need to focus on my job. Otherwise, I won’t be happy.” Is it like an addiction? “You could say that. When I was 13 at Real Madrid, I would take notes on my teammates and analyze them. By age 16, I was already coaching my friends during summer breaks, and at 17, I was a player-coach at university … Claudio Ranieri is 72 and still coaching, so I have plenty of time.”

Jürgen Klopp, the successor at Liverpool, recognizes the importance of taking a break from the chaotic atmosphere. He acknowledges that everyone has their own perspective and needs. However, Benítez has a different mindset and would not have left Liverpool despite the hectic nature of the team. He reveals that his decision would have been based on his family and the fact that his wife is happy living in Liverpool, where she has become a well-loved member of the community.

Liverpool, though, remains a job that sucks the life out of you, where you lead not just a football club but a tribe. Benítez loved that, as he did at Napoli and Newcastle, similar cities with comparable fan bases. Those jobs cost you more emotionally but he says: “The satisfaction compensates.”

They have reached a point in their life where most of the former students from the coaching school they attended are now dominating. In the year 2004, after securing their second La Liga championship with Valencia, they, along with another promising young coach from the Iberian Peninsula, José Mourinho, were highly sought after. They were the first Portuguese and Spanish coaches in the Premier League at the time, but now there are six. Reflecting back, the coach admits that in their 40s, they thought they were capable of achieving anything, but it turned out they were wrong. However, that is just the mindset they needed to have.

Currently, Xabi Alonso is highly sought after as a coach. In the past, he was a slim and sluggish midfielder from Real Sociedad. Many people had reservations about his potential to play in England due to his lack of upper body strength and speed. There were doubts about how he would handle the physical demands and fast pace of the game. Despite his talent, there are numerous players who possess talent but struggle to meet the physical challenges.

Liverpool’s Steven Gerrard and Rafa Benítez celebrate winning the Champions League in IstanbulView image in fullscreen

Benítez pays special attention to small details. Before signing players, he would examine their haircuts to make sure they were not too outlandish, as this could suggest a lack of willingness to follow instructions. He had confidence in Alonso in part because he was from the Basque region, where it rains frequently during the winter, so he wouldn’t be a homesick Southerner missing the sunny weather in Liverpool.

Alonso was naturally inclined to be a coach. “He possessed intelligence and was analytical. When teaching certain players, it often required repetition. Xabi was one of the few who grasped concepts quickly.” One particular match stands out in Alonso’s career. During his first season, he was sidelined for three months due to a rough tackle from Frank Lampard, which greeted him to the rough and tumble of English football. Despite this setback, Alonso’s team, Liverpool, went on to achieve an incredible comeback in the Champions League final in Istanbul. They were down 3-0 but managed to win on penalties. In the midst of this historic run, they also had to face Juventus in the quarter-finals while protecting a slim one-goal lead.

Alonso lacked physical fitness due to his extended absence, but Benítez still needed him. Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Alessandro Del Piero were paired up front, with Pavel Nedved in between, on the opposing team. To counter this, we had to play with three defenders. I switched to a 5-3-1-1 formation, with Milan Baros as the lone striker, Igor Biscan and Antonio Núñez in midfield, and Xabi in the center. I specifically instructed Xabi to remain in the center and not move, as he was not in the best physical condition. I relied on Núñez and Warnock to do the running while Xabi focused on protecting the center-backs from Nedved. Alonso played his role perfectly, and the match ended in a 0-0 draw for Liverpool.

“In terms of our strategy, we executed everything effectively. However, the crucial aspect was getting Xabi back in the game as a defensive midfielder as quickly as possible.”

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He comprehends why there is a demand for Alonso to join Liverpool, but is concerned about the consequences of social media in hastening judgment. It took Benítez 15 years to gain sudden recognition at Valencia, whereas Alonso has only been coaching in the top-flight for 17 months.

“He’s a big name, good professional, good lad, clever, doing really well so I understand why. [But] imagine Steven Gerrard was around and doing well. Then it would be: ‘Gerrard!’ With social media everything is going too fast so that people don’t see the big picture.”

A frown has been linked to the technology habits of the younger generation. He shares an experience of watching 14 members of his Napoli team in an airport lounge, all absorbed in their phones with no conversation taking place. He laments the irony of being in the communication era but lacking communication.

He doesn’t have a negative opinion of Gen Z. He is a fan of Jude Bellingham (except for when he scored the winning goal against him in the 82nd minute). Has he ever seen a player have such a strong impact at Real Madrid? “No, Cristiano Ronaldo was scoring goals, but he was from Portugal, so he had a stronger connection. For a player from England and a completely different culture to come and adapt so well…in the past, it was very difficult for a Spanish player to be successful in England. But then we had players like Luis García, Xabi, Fernando Torres, and Álvaro Arbeloa and people could see their success. He could do the same for English players [here].”

Benítez’s Celta Vigo play bottom-of-the-table Almería in a game deeemed ‘must-win’.View image in fullscreen

There was another English player who was highly respected. According to sources, Jamie Carragher was the most likely among English players to become a coach due to his strong interest in tactical information.

It is Carragher who recently identified the importance of Benítez’s Istanbul victory in providing the foundation for the Klopp era, in that it sustained the historical importance of Liverpool at a time when the club was in danger of becoming a fallen giant. Benítez thinks it precipitated the wave of American investment in the game.

I concur with Carra’s statement. I believe many viewers in the United States were tuned in to this match, which is likely why the new owners decided to purchase this club. They recognized its potential, the dedicated fanbase, and the thrilling atmosphere of the final. It was undoubtedly the most emotionally charged final to date. The post-game celebrations around the city further showcased the immense potential of this club.

Carragher was a man after Benítez’s own heart, always pestering him for more videos to analyse. Yet perhaps he has chosen well in his subsequent career, suggests Benítez with a wry smile. “As a pundit you can criticise, analyse and you never have to play a game. If you make a mistake it doesn’t matter.”

Being a traveling super-coach can often be a solitary experience, as you find yourself holed up in a luxurious hotel room, strategizing on how to defeat Almería while the media constantly reminds you that it is a “must-win” game. However, as we saw in the case of Istanbul, the same could be said for that match as well.

Source: theguardian.com

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