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The Miracle of Istanbul and other great European nights
on 2 October 2012
As his six-year tenure as Liverpool manager ended in June 2010, the disappointment of many who had supported Rafa Benitez through some very troubled times was soon apparent, as was the realisation that many of those supporters did not really know a great deal about the man who had led the club they supported for those six years. Now that has changed with the publication of this excellent book which not only covers the highs and lows of some extraordinary European campaigns but also lifts the lid on Rafa the man, his methods of working and the way he dealt with the problems about the ownership of the club, transfer-budgets and transfer-targets. Yes, the emphasis is on the Champions League matches but much is also revealed about other matches and issues that cropped up during his time in charge of team affairs. It is an honest account, written with humility. Those who respected and admired Rafael Benitez from a distance will do so even more once they have read this publication.
It is clear that Benitez had amassed an extraordinary knowledge of European and World football, even before he was offered the chance to succeed Gerrard Houllier as Liverpool manager halfway through 2004. He recalls : "I knew that Liverpool Football Club was special. I did not know quite how special until I arrived"; and acknowledges that "the fans were warm and welcoming from my very first day"; and looking back after it was all over admits that "the memories I have of my time at Anfield are ones I will always cherish".
Although the book is divided neatly into season-by-season chapters, it is inevitable that there is huge focus on the extraordinary events of the 2004-05 season, a season which improbably ended with his new club lifting the biggest prize in European club football after a truly extraordinary final in the Turkish capital Istanbul. As disbelieving supporters watched from inside the stadium and on television sets all over the world as the final headed into extra-time, the manager of one of the finalists recognised that "given how our evening had started, it was a miracle we had made it this far" and that as his team crossed the finishing-line "the celebrations on the pitch were surreal, almost, absolute ecstasy mixed with utter disbelief". Thousands, maybe millions, knew exactly what he meant and felt at that moment.
Even at his moment of supreme triumph ... or indeed at moments of abject disappointment ... Rafa was always looking ahead, always preparing for a new challenge and furthermore always preparing with astonishing attention to detail that was so thorough he "rarely had time to read anything that was not to do with work". Despite the Miracle of Istanbul, he knew that "we were not as strong as teams of the past" and that "teams did not fear us. It would take time, but that was starting to change". As Barcelona, who had succeeded Liverpool as European champions in 2006, prepared to defend their title in the knock-out stage of the competition, their President, Juan Laporta, unwisely said that "Liverpool was the draw they wanted". After Liverpool came from behind to win at the Nou Camp, suddenly Liverpool was the draw that nobody wanted and certainly not Chelsea, with whom Liverpool were paired in four out of five seasons at the knock-out stage, as well as being drawn in the same group for the 2005-06 campaign. Talking about Chelsea, Benitez recalls that "by the end of that (2007-08) season, we were familiar foes. On such occasions things are decided by the finest margins. It can also come down to who has the best plan". Rafa's plans were always well thought out and that is why those "finest margins" went so often in his favour. When things go wrong, the pain of defeat can be consuming, especially in a final like the re-match with AC Milan in Athens in 2007. As you stand and watch someone else collect the trophy you coveted, you realise that "all that you might have had, they have taken".
Halfway through his time as Liverpool manager, the club's ownership saga was reaching a critical stage. Initially feeling that Americans Hicks and Gillett were "making the right noises", a few days after that final in Athens Benitez made what was seen as an attack (but which he says was only a warning) that the club could not afford to stand still, that "if we don't change things, we will not be contenders; the owners had to realise that everything depended on doing things quicker". The warning was not heeded. Things were changing but not in the way the manager had hoped. To his immense sadness and frustration, "the filing-cabinet was more important than the trophy-cabinet" and "we could not, in the Boot Room, make up for the sins of the Boardroom".
Rada soldiered on, even though he sadly realised that "the balance of the side was not as important as the balance in the bank". There were still some great nights to enjoy, with the return leg with Real Madrid in 2009 being "the finest European performance of my six years at Liverpool". But it wasn't just that night because Anfield was at "its most powerful" on European nights. But even away from home the club's reputation was continuing to grow. After masterminding away wins at Barcelona, Inter Milan and Real Madrid, Liverpool's manager felt "there were no worlds left to conquer". After the tenth and final time he sent a team out against Chelsea in a Champions League match, a breathless 4-4 draw that saw his team eliminated the day before the 20th anniversary of Hillsborough, Benitez talks movingly and with great pride about returning to Anfield for that anniversary service : "Nowhere in the world would a team be able to return to its home stadium, the day after being eliminated from a competition, and be greeted by such warmth on an occasion of such sadness".
After a brief but largely unhappy spell with Inter Milan Rafael Benitez, his wife Montse and their two daughters returned to their Merseyside home. Montse has had to get used to Rafa's extraordinary collection of videos, dvds, books and reports : "She does not understand why I keep everything but you never know when it will be relevant". What IS relevant ... and it shines through in this book from the first page to the last ... is that Rafael Benítez Maudes is a kind, humble and generous man who regularly, selflessly and tirelessly worked 12-hour days in Liverpool's cause, a man who loved to help improve players and do whatever he could to make them a little better, aware that he was training their minds as well as coaching their bodies. All that time, all that patience, all that attention to detail helped to turn Liverpool Football Club into European champions again after a 21-year absence from that grandest of stages; and for that he will always be admired and respected.
The text flows as easily as any book I have ever read (about football or anything else) and the credit for that goes to ghostwriter Rory Smith. Rafa's command of the English language is excellent but I do not believe it is good enough to write a complete book in a language which is not his first, free as far as my experienced eyes could tell of any errors in grammar, spelling or punctuation. So Kudos to Rory for that. On the debit side, however, there are a few factual errors that Rory will probably have to take responsibility for. Rafa's meticulous, even obsessive, accumulation of information about Liverpool Football Club's traditions and history is well known and he has probably forgotten more about the club's history than most of its supporters will ever learn. So it is for exactly those reasons that I don't think Mister Benitez would ever confuse the Shankly Gates with the Paisley Gates or remember incorrectly the direction in which AC Milan's Brazilian goalkeeper Dida had dived to parry Xabi Alonso's penalty-kick in Istanbul. Those few blemishes apart, there are some excellent photographs to support the text of matches which are described so graphically.