Sunday October 03 2010
'Football is a lie.' Anybody who has spent any time with Rafael Benitez will have heard these words. There are a million lies in football, a hundred thousand ways for the flimflam men and the bullshitters to prosper.
For Liverpool to prosper, it was concluded that Benitez would have to leave. His exit, it was said, would lead to an explosion of joy among the ranks of the players who had been worn down by his obsessiveness, his relentless demands and his cold, cold heart. The club, it was said, needed a break from his plotting. Things could only get better.
Today, as Benitez's Inter Milan face Juventus at the San Siro, Liverpool play a team one point above them in the Premier League: Blackpool. Before the game, the supporters will be marching in the streets in protest against Tom Hicks and George Gillett whose duplicity Benitez did so much to expose. The chief executive Christian Purslow, brought in to sell the club, is still there, still looking for owners, still reassuring the key players that all will be well. Within days, Liverpool could be in administration but, for many Liverpool fans, the possible nine-point penalty (there could be a loophole which allows Liverpool to avoid it which would almost certainly lead to a legal objection from Liverpool's challengers) is preferable to Hicks and Gillett refinancing. On the pitch, Roy Hodgson, the man Purslow appointed, appears to have made things worse.
And all it took was the removal of Benitez to bring the feel-good factor back.
Many ignored the complexities involved in managing a club owned by leverage kings while Benitez was in charge. Only now is the extent of his achievement becoming clear.
His refusal to play the media game or to back down or to be pragmatic in any way alienated those who form opinion. For a long time, nobody listened to their opinions at Anfield. In the last year, they did.
"Did we make mistakes? Obviously," Benitez said last week. "But 82, 86 points, four trophies, three more finals in a difficult time when the owners were changing, when the chief executives were changing. A lot of things were changing. Now people can see it, no? It was a big, big problem."
Benitez took the hits but held the club together. If he was shunned by the opinion-formers, it wasn't because he wasn't political. In the last year he went, as one ally puts it, "to war". He always felt there was a better way to do things
Benitez wants to look forward to his challenge at Inter, it is how he has persuaded himself a football man should be, but he cannot shake the sadness about his departure from the club and the city he and his family love. Those who know him well say he is more relaxed now than he was during that draining final twelve months.
After three hours in his company on Wednesday, I could see why his friends want him to talk to the media more often. David Conachy, the Sunday Independent photographer, was surprised by his warmth and wit, having expected a brooding, more explosive, presence.
But Benitez is wary too. Football is a lie and he has observed how some use the media to promote their versions of the story. At one point, he jumps from his seat, refusing to pose in a certain way because it is, he says, the kind of picture one of his enemies would sit for. Above all else, he is wary of being a phoney.
Liverpool, it was said, needed a manager who would put his arm around a player's shoulder. But they can't hug out their problems, as Hodgson is discovering.
"Everybody has weak points and I have weak points for sure," Benitez says. "People say I don't put my arm round the shoulder. It's not true. I am talking to the players every day. I like to know about them but my priority is football."
His priority has always been football. "I have been doing this job all my life," he says and it is barely an exaggeration. "Always in my head I was a manager."
He talks about his childhood in terms of football. His father was a commercial director of a hotel -- "he didn't like too much football" -- and a busy man so "I remember my mother taking me to the Bernabeu for training".
His career as a player was ended by injury but he was ready. Managing is his lifetime's work. He sleeps a few hours each night and he is always thinking of ways to be better. He may think too much.
"I think the manager is eternally dissatisfied because he wants more and more and more. I'm this kind of manager. I like to improve, to do better every time. Some times you know that you will need more time so you have to be calm but still you have to improve."
Does he ever look back on his great nights with pride and contentment?
"I have notes of everything, every single season, every single day. What I did this, or how I changed my approach to a player. One hundred per cent, I am analysing and I am always talking to my staff."
It's hardly The Time of Our Lives with Jeff Stelling. Benitez couldn't act clubbable. Last month, Jamie Carragher gave an interview in which he talked of the need for Liverpool to get back to traditional values.
"We've had situations like Martin O'Neill and Steve Bruce criticising Liverpool and they were right," Carragher said. "We shouldn't be getting involved with stuff like that. Everyone else should look at Liverpool and say they have dignity, class. I mean, like the way people look at Arsenal."
It was unfortunate timing as Arsene Wenger then spent the next month fighting with everyone, including match officials.
"I didn't see his quote but I like Carra as a player and he has to keep focusing on doing things well for Liverpool. Maybe he has an opinion but I don't think Shankly would agree with him. For me the manager of Liverpool Football Club has to defend the club and his players against everyone. The name of the other manager doesn't matter. If you know the story inside you will understand why these managers are talking and I think for our fans it's very clear.
"If you see the friends that these people have you will understand why. It's obvious that there are people who are close to some people and they like to protect each other."
Benitez was apart and, equally as dangerously, became convinced of his own separateness. Again, it is the way he believes a manager has to be.
"When you work hard and you have an idea and you want to carry on with your idea people say 'oh you are stubborn'. I think you have to have a conviction when you work with the players, when you know the players and when you talk with your staff. It's essential if you want to convince them. All the managers have the same idea."
He was a physical education teacher and one of the ways he sees himself as different to his predecessor at Inter, Jose Mourinho, is in his approach to footballers.
"I like to teach them. I am sure if they learn they will know things for the rest of their lives. If you can win in one year with the best players, saying we have to win this game, this game, the next game that's one way. But when you teach them the way and you ask them how to do things, it's different. At the end, they will know and they will remember all their lives."
He is trying to change things at Inter while keeping the things they did well under Mourinho. Before he arrived in Milan, he read in the Spanish press how Mourinho could control everything from his manager's office at the Angelo Moratti Training Centre. There was a window with a panoramic view that allowed him to see all that was happening on the training fields. During my time in Benitez's spartan office on Wednesday, I couldn't see this window. Football is a lie.
Mourinho's achievements cannot be disputed but Benitez would not be the man he is if he didn't think he could do more.
"The players are happy because we are trying to play more football, more on the floor, the passing is better. They were doing good things in the past and especially in the transition, the counter-attack, they were quite good. Now we have more possession but it takes time to adjust. It will be almost impossible to win more trophies in one year, we know that, but at least we will try to win some of them with style."
Inter are top of Serie A but one defeat is a crisis in Italy. He has the squad that won the European Cup, but he may have liked to have new faces to challenge the players who achieved so much last season.
Benitez is not going to rest on somebody else's laurels. On Wednesday night, Inter beat Werder Bremen 4-0. It was an important result but again perhaps football lied as it was not a performance that merited 4-0.
Inter suits Benitez too. He looks to Turin, to Juventus and sees the questionable powerbase of Italian football. He looks to the south, to Rome and sees the capital with its influence and he looks to Milanello, AC Milan's famed training camp and he sees Silvio Berlusconi and his authority. Italy is the kind of country where a man can collect enemies.
His friends from Liverpool are still around. They are thinking about Inter now but they form a government in exile, always aware of what is happening at the club they love.
He has changed, he says, everybody changes. The former Real Madrid manager Luis Molowny, who died earlier this year, once told him that it is important to be patient. Molowny's name is written on a piece of paper pinned to his office wall so his advice is on his mind. He says he is more patient now than he used to be.
The signings that didn't work out at Liverpool might be among the things he'd change. "I'll say it again, we made mistakes. But people are talking about players who were not good enough, if you put five or six of these players together, the cost would be five million. It's not easy to wheel and deal and at the same time to win and sign players like Torres, Reina, Mascherano, Aquilani, Skrtel, Johnson, Lucas Leiva, Agger or Kuyt."
These are the players he left behind. "I was very clear that when I left we had a better squad than we had in the past, and a better team. We knew we had to bring in better players. We left a good team, a very good team. A lot of people are talking about the legacy but the legacy is fantastic. When I left the club, Mascherano, Benayoun and Riera were there, along with Carra, Gerrard, Spearing, Darby. Insua, Cavalieri and Shelvey. They cannot talk about legacy when Purslow and Hodgson signed seven players. They have already changed the squad."
Gerard Houllier said he left a legacy too, claiming that in Istanbul the players told him it was his side that had won the European Cup. "I didn't see Houllier on the way to Istanbul or at half-time," he said sardonically. "After the game, I gave him permission to come into the dressing room and we couldn't get him out, even with boiling water! That's a Spanish expression."
Among Benitez's mistakes were Robbie Keane and the alienation of Xabi Alonso in one crucial summer. Keane was, he says, a "good player and a fantastic professional who needed a target man with him". But, crucially, Gareth Barry was Benitez's priority. "Barry was the first but I was not doing the business and I couldn't control it. The timing was a problem. I thought we had the money and it was obvious we didn't have the money."
Benitez had rumbled Hicks and Gillett before this but as they scrambled and failed to find the money for Barry, his plans unravelled. The collateral damage was significant too: Xabi Alonso was lost.
"In the last season Alonso played his best season for us. That is the reason people are talking about him. It was his last year when he gave us his best."
In Alonso's last season, Benitez drove his team towards the title. Liverpool finished second, a stunning achievement given his resources and the apocalypse that was heading Liverpool's way thanks to Hicks and Gillett and the recession caused by men like them.
Benitez's handling of the attempted sale of Alonso the year before alienated the player and ensured he would go. But Benitez planned to replace him with Alberto Aquilani and the Montenegrin Stevan Jovetic. The sale of Alonso was a controversial and ruthless decision and, as so often at Liverpool, he wasn't allowed full control of the solution.
Instead he was given half of what he asked for. Suddenly the money disappeared, as it tends to when working for the indebted. Benitez's last season began with Liverpool as many people's title favourites. But the manager couldn't conceal the club's problems anymore.
"It was a long time, it wasn't just one thing," he says of the process that wore him down. "The feeling was that something was wrong, we couldn't do what we wanted to do. We were preparing the signings and the sales but we could see that we have some targets and we didn't do it."
Christian Purslow was the new chief executive. Rick Parry had infuriated Benitez with the pace at which he got things done but he insists there was nothing personal. "I had a very good relationship with David Moores and Rick Parry but the only thing I wanted to do was to do things quicker because we didn't have too much money. To be fair, sometimes we were doing good business without big money and sometimes we lost players. After the Americans arrived, everything changed. I thought it would be easier the first year, we signed Torres and everything was going well but little by little we had some money problems and all the decisions were subject to the money issues."
It is the most understated way of describing the meltdown. The last season became attritional. Stories filtered out about an unhappy squad, how Rafa had lost the dressing room.
"It's not true that I lost the dressing room. It was obvious that maybe some players were not happy but the majority of the players were very good professionals who were surprised by these stories in the same newspapers by the same journalists. Who was leaking them?"
He wasn't looking to be loved but he believed he would stay at Liverpool.
Last week Christian Purslow remarked that "Rafa's exit was about as clearcut a case of mutual consent as I have ever been involved in in my life. Both sides thought it was time for a change, both sides said so at the time, if you go back and check."
Benitez saw his comment. "I read that he said this -- I was preparing for the next season but after the meeting with Mr Broughton and Mr Purslow I realised that I had to accept the offer they made. I was very sad and my family were devastated when we realised after these meetings that we would leave. I knew I had to go."
He will not be drawn on what changed but after a couple of summers being denied the money he thought he was getting, it's not hard to conclude that his transfer budget and the money he would get from player sales had something to do with it.
He remains attached to the place. He is aware of the protests against Tom Hicks and George Gillett but doesn't want to talk too much out of "respect for the fans and the club". All he knows is that the club is still looking for investment a year after being told the cavalry was on its way. Christian Purslow is nobody's idea of the cavalry.
Benitez spent last year waiting for the investment, meeting with potential investors. Now he has a new challenge while survival is Liverpool's.
But Liverpool is a part of him. It is the place he and his wife call home.
"I am monitoring carefully everything that's going on there. I have a lot of friends there and I received a 'Justice' scarf from the Hillsborough families group that is in my office at home. Again out of respect I think it is important that I talk a little bit about the past but especially about the future. For me, at this moment, that is Inter Milan. I keep my house there, we are based in Liverpool and in the future we will be there again."
Right now, he thinks about Inter and the challenges but he knows more than most what football can bring and how he might return.
"You never know, football is football. It could be in five years' time, ten years' time, two years' time. We have two years of a contract here, we are really pleased here, the people are very nice, the fans are very similar to Liverpool fans, with passion, so everything is going well."
But Liverpool is home? "Yeah-it's the only house we have. Liverpool is my home and I will come back."
In his last year, he fought many battles in pursuit of victory in one war. He wanted the right to do things as he wanted to do them. He wanted so much, he always did, and he always wanted more.
Those close to Benitez dismiss Purslow as a man who thought he knew too much about too many things. It is a criticism many have thrown at Rafa too. They saw him as a political animal and he was unwavering in his belief that his way was the right way.
But they underestimated him too, they always have. They concluded that he was cunning. He wasn't cunning, he just wasn't as pliable as some expected.
With his dishevelled appearance and his lack of personal vanity, Benitez is football's Lieutenant Columbo. And he is always looking for 'just one more thing'. The obsessional pursuit drove him mad and brought him into dangerous conflict with the powers that remain at Liverpool. But he knew no other way. He didn't ask for much: only perfection.
On Wednesday, David Conachy was pushing Rafa for more pictures. He doesn't like having his picture taken or, more precisely, he doesn't like having a certain type of picture taken. Dave wanted to take every type of picture.
"Just one more," Dave said to him several times.
"You always say just one more," Rafa smiled, looking at his watch, as he tried to get away.
"He's a perfectionist, Rafa, you can understand that," I said.
Rafa looked at me. "I didn't say it was bad. It's just dangerous."