Oliver Kay (The Times)
It was, Rafael BenÍtez said, an “almost perfect” night. Almost? Your team win 8-0, setting a Champions League record, and still you want more? “Yes, because the other team had one chance,” the Liverpool manager said with a stroke of that almost perfectly manicured goatee beard – and no, he was not joking.
Like all perfectionists, BenÍtez has never witnessed perfection, least of all on a football pitch. As a serious child growing up in Madrid in the early 1970s, albeit one oblivious to the significance of the final years of Franco’s regime, he would return home from training to chart the performances of his youth side, dissecting the form of teammates who had no idea that they were under such scrutiny.
Suspicions of his obsessive tendencies were raised, however, if they visited his family’s apartment, where they would be instantly compelled to take him on at chess or, better still, Stratego, a military board game at which the young BenÍtez was particularly prolific.
As he once explained to a handful of bemused reporters, it took a rare and upsetting defeat at Stratego and, subsequently, a succession of sleepless nights before he finally settled on a winning formula. Now, at the age of 47, he applies that process to football. After any game – win, lose or draw – he will go home and spend hours in his office, poring over a DVD of the game. When finally he goes to bed, he will share his findings with his wife, Montse. As pillow-talk goes, it is not quite what we expect of the Spanish.
Jamie Carragher, the Liverpool vice-captain, claims never to have had a conversation with his manager about anything beyond football in 3½ years. “People say I’m obsessed by football, but he’s unbelievable,” the defender said. “It’s a bit sick really. You just think: ‘How can he have a life?’ ” BenÍtez is a devoted husband and a doting father of two young girls, but his players wonder when he gets the chance to see them. He is the first to the training ground every morning and the last to leave. Sir Alex Ferguson is renowned for a similar workaholic approach, but the Manchester United manager makes time to indulge his other interests: horse racing, fine wine, politics and, of course, his family. BenÍtez is a family man, but one rarely, if ever, seen out and about on Merseyside outside of his work. He did once visit the Lake District, apparently.
The manager’s job consumes BenÍtez, but in football, where the protagonists on the pitch are less pliable than those on a mock battlefield, perfection remains an elusive goal, even when, as on Tuesday, his team are winning 8-0 against Besiktas.
As each goal flew in, he responded in his customary fashion by hauling one of his players over from the celebrating throng and issuing tactical instructions – “Keep tight”, “Watch the No 10” – always thinking, always desperate to preserve a clean sheet. Cynics wonder whether this might be for effect, a deliberate attempt to show a calm head when all about him are losing theirs. But the perfectionism is real, as Steven Gerrard recalls from the postmatch party after his two goals against West Ham United had all but won the FA Cup in 2006.
“I wandered across to him, thinking: Go on, Rafa, just say it. Just say: ‘Well done, Steven’ for once,” Gerrard wrote in his autobiography. “Would he? No chance. Our chat revolved around what went wrong on the day, nothing to do with how well we had done to get back into one of the greatest finals of all time. My aim is still to get a ‘well done’ off him before I retire. But if I did, I might need treatment and a long lie down.”
Even among his peers, BenÍtez is an enigma. He has the dedication of José Mourinho but none of the charisma; the cool head of Sven-Göran Eriksson but none of the charm; he shares Arsène Wenger’s obsession with the game but not the Arsenal manager’s love of beautiful football, instead preferring tactics that, in the words of one observer, “appear to have been devised by a chartered accountant”.
In terms of man-management, he is not the father-figure type, instead treating his players with much the same affection as he did the soldiers on the Stratego board.
Beneath that cold exterior, though, there is a heart. When he left Valencia to move to Anfield in the summer of 2004, he wept during his farewell press conference. Maybe one day we will see a similar side to him, but, to his players, that remains no more likely than a slap on the back and a hearty “well done”.