By Arun Nair
Rafa Benitez is currently in a press conference. The Spanish manager, who won the European Cup and FA Cup among others, and was denied the league title by 4 points in 2008/09(or was it two deflections by Federico Macheda?), is currently answering questions on his surprise appointment as manager of Chelsea. A Reds hero, one of the great Liverpool managers, will soon be barking directions from the Stamford Bridge dugout. Liverpool fans across the globe are in shock. The image of Benitez holding up the Chelsea shirt is the stuff of nightmares.
Sebastian Giovinco slides the ball beneath Petr Cech as Chelsea succumb 3-0 against Italian giants Juventus in Turin. Hours later, manager Roberto Di Matteo is sacked. Benitez is given the job on an interim basis after Chelsea’s trigger-happy Russian owner Roman Abramovich is unable to tempt Pep Guardiola out of his sabbatical prematurely. Reds fans look on in disappointment, which turns to anger when Chelsea fans begin protests against their new boss. “He’s not a good manager” says Trizia Fiorellino, the chair of Chelsea’s supporters group, while boos are expected to ring out at Stamford Bridge on Sunday.
Could they be more wrong. Liverpool fans know better.
The media have always denounced Benitez, calling him a lucky manager. You need more than luck to take a team featuring around just 4 world-class players past Leverkusen, Juventus and Chelsea to Istanbul in 2005 and win against the might of Milan, or to win in the Nou Camp facing Barcelona’s superstars, the likes of Xavi, Lionel Messi, Ronaldinho and Samuel Eto’o. Besides, if he was that lucky he’d have a League title on his CV.
The British press also criticise his transfer dealings. Yes, he’s made mistakes. But no manager has a perfect record. For every Andriy Voronin or Alberto Aquilani at Liverpool, there’d been a Diego Forlan or Juan Sebastian Veron under Sir Alex Fergurson.
But, a more potent factor in the hurt Reds fans are feeling is: Why Chelsea? Rafa has less than complimentary of that side in the past, noting “We don’t need to give away flags for our fans to wave – our supporters are always there with their hearts, and that is all we need. It’s the passion of the fans that helps to win matches – not flags.”
More explicitly he said in 2007 “I would never take that job, in respect for my former team at Liverpool, no matter what. For me there is only one club in England, and that’s Liverpool.”
So why has he taken the job now?
Rafa’s been out of the game for almost two years, but his passion for football, and winning is still strong. It’s obvious that he loves Liverpool, both the club and the fans, but his determination to win trophies brought him back to the Premier League.
“I’ve been given a challenge that is to manage a top side and I could wait for another one of two years. It’s a good challenge, a top side, you can win trophies. I was waiting for one or two years for an opportunity like this one. I can guarantee a lot of Liverpool fans will wish me all the best – although obviously not against Liverpool.”
The selfish part of me doesn’t want Rafa to succeed. Part of me wishes this never happened. The thought of Benitez in the away dugout when Chelsea visit Anfield on April 20th is frightening.
But ultimately, Rafa, I hope you’re right. I hope Liverpool fans do wish you the best, because your memory shouldn’t be tainted by this. Everything you’ve done for Liverpool should be what you’re remembered for. The man behind many famous nights in Reds history. The man who won our 5th European Cup. The man who defied the odds to win success for the club he served.
And I hope this classic chant will be ring out when he returns.
Rafa, Raf-a-el, Rafa, Raf-a-el, Rafa, Raf-a-el,