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Rafa and Real


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I wasn't aware of all this, apologies if it is common knowledge.



Rafael Benitez was born in Madrid, grew up in Madrid and was schooled in Madrid. He went to university in Madrid, married in Madrid and did military service in Madrid, barely a hundred yards from the Santiago ­Bernabéu. He played and coached Real Madrid and lays claim to spotting Madrid's captain Raúl. He even commentated on football for Telemadrid. So, when Benítez reveals that "my childhood dream was to play for Madrid", it comes as no surprise; when he says his return to Madrid tonight will provoke few emotions, it is harder to believe him.


"Above all Rafa is supremely professional and he hides his feelings well," says José Luis San Martín, who worked with the Liverpool coach at Madrid, the club he has served for more than 30 years. "But I have no doubt this match is special for him." Special is not the half of it. "Madrid saw the birth of Benítez", says the Spain coach Vicente del Bosque. Almost half his life has been spent at Real Madrid and rumours of a return for a prodigal son persist. For one member of the technical staff, Madrid should never have let him go in the first place.


Benítez was only 35 when he left "home" but 23 years had passed since he joined the club when his Atlético-supporting father Francisco got him a trial. He had progressed through the club's youth set-up – infantiles, cadetes, and juveniles – before reaching Real Madrid C in Spain's amateur Third Division. "I would have been an average First Division player," he admits, "but I wasn't good enough for Madrid." He never got the chance to find out: playing for Spain at the World Student Games in Mexico in 1979, he suffered a knee ligament injury that effectively ended his hopes of a ­professional career at 20.


But Benítez had always been a coach, even when he was a player. His father still has the notebook Rafa kept when he was 13, full of notes on his team-mates, marks out of 10, tactics, even his team talks. He was a compulsive collector of cuttings and no one could shut him up. "When I played, they said I talked too much but I couldn't help it," Benítez admits. "If I saw a problem I tried to correct it." And within six years of that Mexico injury, having finally hung up his amateur boots, graduated in PE and qualified as a coach of basketball as well as football, he got a job at Madrid.


Starting with Castilla Juvenil B in 1986, Benítez had by 1993 reached Real Madrid B in Spain's Third Division where he coached Raúl for one game only. He did not just coach him: others have their doubts and Raúl does not remember but Benítez claims: "I was the one who decided to sign Raúl from Atlético's youth team."


It mattered little that Benítez's first charges were teenagers or that he was not even 30; there were already signs of the demanding obsessive that would succeed at Valencia and Liverpool, always on top of his players. Ahead of his time he turned to videos and reports, controlled diet and recovery programmes. He carried a laptop, too – at a time when most people didn't even have one, let alone know how to switch it on. Every detail counted.


As Jesús Velasco, a former Madrid ­juvenil player who reached the first team, puts it, Benítez was "pesado". Heavy. He simply never let up. "Rafa was single then and lived for football," Del Bosque recalls. A keen chess player, fan of the board game Risk, he was fascinated by tactics and had an extraordinary capacity for work. "Rafa," one friend fondly insists "is an anorak."


"What was striking was the detail," says Ismael Urzaiz, the former Athletic Bilbao striker who began his career at Madrid. "I was only with him for a week," agrees Raúl, "but I had never seen a coach study every little detail so profoundly." Velasco adds: "We were only 17 but Benítez was extremely demanding, very systematic. On long coach journeys to games we would watch videos and the amount of information he provided was incredible."


Some called him "Arrigo Benítez", such was the attention to detail and – in particular – the obsession with playing by zones. Moves were perfected in training without a ball. "Conceptually we had to imagine we were connected by a rope," explains Velasco. "No-one could go too far one way without the others accompanying him. We learnt so much from Benítez. You could tell he was going to go a long way. In fact, wWhen I see Liverpool play now, I see something of our team from back then."


When Real Madrid sacked Benito Floro mid-way through the 1993-94 season, Del Bosque was promoted in his place. Impressed by Benítez's methodical, dedicated approach, he took Rafa as his assistant. The experiment, though, did not last for long. At the end of the season Madrid signed Jorge Valdano as coach and Benítez was returned to the B team. And that was the beginning of the end.


One problem stood out above all. Valdano had called Carlos Alejandro Sierra Fumero, "Sandro", into the first-team squad and considered him a star, albeit one who was not yet fully ready. He told Benítez to play him for Real Madrid B; Benítez refused. He did not consider Sandro to be as talented as Valdano claimed. More importantly he did not like the way he trained. He had, Benítez argued, lost focus; he did not have the application or mentality to make it.


Sandro's subsequent career has proved Benítez right but few backed him. In fact, the pressure built against him. Madrid sided with Valdano and for the first time in his life Benítez, determined to remain faithful to his ideas, took the reluctant decision to build a footballing career away from the club that was his club and should have remained so. "Rafa going hurt," admits San Martín. "He had so much to offer. It's such a shame that they didn't see it at the Bernabéu." Tonight, at last, they might.

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