There are desirable jobs, and then there are dream jobs. Whether being named as head coach of Real Madrid is one of the latter category is open to question. Certainly relatively recent incumbents like Carlos Queiroz, Vanderlei Luxemburgo and Manuel Pellegrini might have different adjectives to describe some of the trials they faced.
Already, it’s clear that Rafael Benitez will have little complaint with his lot, even when the inevitable criticism begins to arrive (and it’s inevitable for any Real Madrid head coach, regardless of stature or reputation, past or present).
The tears that Benitez shed at his unveiling press conference in June (as detailed here by Eurosport) recalled a history often overlooked given the striking impressions, positive and negative, that he has made since leaving Spain more than a decade ago as a Liga/UEFA Cup double-winner with Valencia.
In a footballing sense, Benitez was shaped in the Spanish capital, his home city. He played in the club's B team, Castilla, for over seven years, then got his first coaching job as Castilla manager in 1993 after retiring as a player.
Benitez feels part of Real Madrid, so when he told the media in that emotional June gathering at the Bernabeu that this was a “unique opportunity,” he meant it—and not just in the sense that many felt, that he had been lucky to walk out of a questionable final season at Napoli into such a plum role. This means a lot to him.
What’s perhaps even more important, however, is on a practical level. Benitez knows the club inside out. It is already changing his modus operandi, and it’s probably changing it for the better.
For a start, it means there’s no way he should repeat one of the major mistakes of his reigns at Valencia, Liverpool and Napoli—which was picking a fight over transfer policy, in trying to leverage more influence for himself in personnel decisions. He knows Real Madrid well enough to know that at the Bernabeu, it’s a fight he simply can’t win.
Note Benitez’s Monday press conference in Munich ahead of this week’s Audi Cup tournament with Bayern, Milan and Tottenham. The coach’s words, as reported by BBC Sport—“I think Benzema is going to stay with us”—were a strong backing of his French centre-forward, without being completely unequivocal.
Yes, Benitez would like to keep Benzema. Yes, he expects to keep Benzema. If Florentino Perez should suddenly decide that he wants to sell, is the coach about to fall on his sword to make a point? Not likely.
Turning the other cheek has not always been a strength of Benitez’s, not only in dealing with presidents, but in his contact with the media. His infamous "fact" rant back in 2009 while at Liverpool (full transcript here, courtesy of the Guardian) still colours perception of him among Premier League fans.
Whatever your view of the validity (or otherwise) of his points, it clearly didn’t do him any favours. The less Benitez gets involved in stuff outside the nuts and bolts of what happens on the training pitch, the better.
This reputation as some sort of nuisance is unfair. Certainly in his clashes with the boardroom at his clubs, it’s simply a reflection of his attention to detail and his constant desire for improvement.
This was keenly felt at Anfield, where his overhaul of the Liverpool academy is an often overlooked piece of the Benitez legacy. His 2009 appointment of a new set of coaches, led by Pep Segura, paved the way for the progress of players like Raheem Sterling to make the leap to the senior side (and was praised by Kenny Dalglish on the club’s official website, here).
In terms of that specific example, it will be more difficult to help products of La Fabrica, El Real’s academy, transition to the first team (note the recent sale of Jose Rodriguez to Galatasaray). Actually producing the players has rarely been a problem for the club in the past, of course.
Nevertheless, Benitez is at his best when he simply gets on with coaching, and he will have more than enough to occupy him on that front in his new post. Even without a raft of major signings (right-back Danilo and back-up goalkeeper Kiko Casilla are the only big arrivals to date), juggling a star-studded cast will be tricky.
This week’s task in Munich will not exactly be the pinnacle of that, and not only because it’s just pre-season. The absences of Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo with minor injuries means Gareth Bale is set for a central attacking role, as per the English version of AS.
Both the Welshman and Isco, who has shone in pre-season, will have their space to show their best this week. How they will be fitted into an XI alongside Ronaldo, Benzema and the returning James Rodriguez when their La Liga campaign kicks off at Sporting Gijon’s El Molinon in just over a fortnight’s time is another question entirely.
It is the sort of puzzler that Benitez will relish. If he can appear clunky and stilted when trying to spar his way through mind games, he is a totally different proposition when discussing the intricacies of the game.
His eyes light up with childlike enthusiasm, for a start. Rarely has this writer seen him more animated than when contemplating the prospect of fitting Fernando Torres and Ryan Babel into a traditionally defensively set team, back in 2007. Compare this with his nemesis, Jose Mourinho, who can give the impression that he feels discussing tactics with journalists is beneath him.
Benitez does not only have a keen eye for detail, but a genuine, undisputable love for the game that is sometimes lost in media caricatures of him. Maybe, with nothing but training the team to concern him, this will come to the fore more at the Bernabeu.
He knows it won’t be an easy road. Yet, that won’t dampen Benitez’s keenness to get stuck into his first season at the Bernabeu. Plenty are expecting him to fail, and the end when it comes might not be pretty, as with so many of his predecessors. This really is his dream job, though, and he intends to grab the moment with both hands.