‘It’s an addiction’: Rafa Benítez on Celta Vigo, family and clamour for Xabi Alonso

<span>Rafa Benítez, photographed in Vigo, is happy to carry on in football. ‘Claudio Ranieri is 72 and still coaching which means I have plenty of time.’</span><span>Photograph: Miguel Riopa/The Guardian</span>
Rafa Benítez, photographed in Vigo, is happy to carry on in football. ‘Claudio Ranieri is 72 and still coaching which means I have plenty of time.’Photograph: Miguel Riopa/The Guardian

Rafa Benítez bounds into the hotel bar with a jaunty smile, a firm handshake and the air of a man wholly at ease with the world. The sun is shining on the Galician coast, the bar overlooks the idyllic Ría de Vigo estuary, all rocky coves and hidden beaches. He insists you try the local octopus delicacy.

This is what life looks like for a 63-year-old itinerant super-coach who is one game from the sack, according to the local paper that morning. Benítez’s Celta Vigo play bottom-of-the-table Almería on Friday. It’s a must-win game, the paper says.

It would take too long to give full justice to Celta Vigo’s travails this season, though special mentions for being 2-0 up at Barcelona with nine minutes to play but losing 3-2; and the last-minute penalty that denied them against Sevilla, a decision so egregious it caused their star player, Iago Aspas, to seize the ref’s pitch-side TV monitor and smash it to the ground. (Who hasn’t wanted to do that?)

Suffice to say, in their centenary year, with Benítez hired to rebuild a romantic club – Europa League semi-finalists in 2017 yet relegation strugglers of late – they are fourth bottom. Last weekend they were winning 2-0 at third-bottom Cádiz but conceded an equaliser in the 10th minute of stoppage time, a microcosm of their season.

Benítez sighs and smiles as he draws attention to the reports predicting his demise. There comes a point in a coaching career when you really have seen it all. Vigo is an industrial port and Spain’s fishing fleet sets sail from here out into the Atlantic. Like an experienced sea captain who has navigated this tempestuous stretch of ocean a thousand times, Benítez seems pretty relaxed about these local squalls.

Which isn’t to say he doesn’t care. There is a lengthy, passionate explanation of the problems, which centre around a difficult relationship with the former sporting director. (Benítez coined the memorable phrase encapsulating the sporting director/coach relationship: “I asked for a table and he brought me a lampshade.”) A new sporting director has made lines of communication much clearer, Benítez says.

So the hero of Istanbul 2005, the two-time La Liga winner who broke the Barça-Real Madrid duopoly here, the cup winner in England and Italy, Europa League winner at Chelsea and World Club Cup winner with Inter is in Vigo when be could be in Merseyside with wife, Montse – coincidentally a Galician by birth – counting his money.

“I have this conversation with my wife sometimes: ‘Oh, stay with the family,’” he smiles. “I can stay with the family for some months but after you want to do your job. Otherwise you will not be happy.” Like an addiction? “You could say that. When I was 13 at Real Madrid, I was taking notes about my teammates and analysing. At 16 I was the coach of my friends in the summer holidays, at 17 I was player-coach at university … Claudio Ranieri is 72 and still coaching which means I have plenty of time.”

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He understands the need of Jürgen Klopp, a successor at Liverpool, to take time out from this madness. “Jürgen and his family have their own ideas and each person is different.” Yet Benítez is perhaps built differently, and wouldn’t have walked away from Liverpool, however crazy the circus became. “Maybe,” he says. “Maybe I would want to continue but for me it was easy: living in Liverpool, I could stay there for my wife.” Montse is famously an adopted scouser.

Liverpool, though, remains a job that sucks the life out of you, where you lead not just a football club but a tribe. Benítez loved that, as he did at Napoli and Newcastle, similar cities with comparable fan bases. Those jobs cost you more emotionally but he says: “The satisfaction compensates.”

He is now of an age where alumni from his coaching school dominate. In 2004, when he had won his second La Liga title with Valencia, he and another upstart young Iberian, José Mourinho, were the hottest tickets in town. That year they became the Premier League’s first Portuguese and Spanish coaches; today there are six. “You’re in your 40s, you think you can do everything,” he reflects. “You are mistaken but it is how you have to be.”

Today Xabi Alonso is very much the “must-hire” coach. Twenty years ago he was a skinny, slow midfielder from Real Sociedad. “Everybody had doubts. Could he play in England? Not strong enough in the upper body, not quick. There were question marks. We knew he had the talent but there are a lot of players who have talent, who cannot cope with the physicality and pace.”

Benítez is all about the details. He analysed players’ haircuts before signing them: too zany might mean too individualistic to take instruction. He trusted Alonso partly because he was from the Basque country, where it rains for much of the winter: he wouldn’t be a homesick Andalucían pining for the sun in wet Liverpool.

Alonso was born to coach. “He was clever and analysed. When you explain things to some players, you have to repeat. Xabi was one who learned quickly.” One game stands out. Alonso was out for three months in that first season, the victim of a “Welcome to England” tackle from Frank Lampard. Liverpool were embarking on their epic run to that astonishing Champions League win in Istanbul – 3-0 down, they won on penalties – yet had to negotiate a quarter-final at Juventus, protecting a one-goal lead.

Alonso had no physical conditioning, having been out for so long, yet Benítez needed him. “They had Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Alessandro Del Piero up front with Pavel Nedved between the lines. We had to play with three centre-backs. I changed to play 5-3-1-1, with Milan Baros up front, Igor Biscan and Antonio Núñez [in midfield] with Xabi in the middle. I told Xabi: ‘Stay in the middle! Don’t move!’ Because he couldn’t run. ‘Núñez will run! Warnock will run! You stay there! Be sure you protect the centre-backs from Nedved.” Alonso played the role perfectly and Liverpool drew 0-0.

“Tactically we did everything really well but the [key] thing was to recover Xabi quickly to make sure he could play as holding midfielder.”

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He understands the clamour for Alonso at Liverpool but fears the impact of social media accelerates judgment. It took Benítez 15 years to become an overnight sensation at Valencia; Alonso is 17 months into his top-flight coaching career.

“He’s a big name, good professional, good lad, clever, doing really well so I understand why. [But] imagine Steven Gerrard was around and doing well. Then it would be: ‘Gerrard!’ With social media everything is going too fast so that people don’t see the big picture.”

There is a grimace relating to the tech habits of younger people. He tells the story of observing 14 of his Napoli team sitting in an airport lounge, heads down, transfixed by phones. “Nobody talking! This new generation [are] in the communication era but we don’t communicate!”

Not that he is down on Gen Z. He enjoys Jude Bellingham (less so when he scored an 82nd-minute winner against him). Has he seen a player ever make such an impact at Real Madrid? “No. Cristiano Ronaldo was scoring goals but he came from Portugal so has more connection. A player from England, a culture that is totally different, to come and adapt so well … in the past it was very difficult for a Spanish player to go to England and be successful. Then we had Luis García, Xabi, Fernando Torres, Álvaro Arbeloa and people could see successful players. He could do the same for the English players [here].”

There is another English player he loved. “If you ask who was most likely to be a coach, Jamie Carragher was the one among the English players with an appetite for tactical information.”

It is Carragher who recently identified the importance of Benítez’s Istanbul victory in providing the foundation for the Klopp era, in that it sustained the historical importance of Liverpool at a time when the club was in danger of becoming a fallen giant. Benítez thinks it precipitated the wave of American investment in the game.

“I agree with Carra on that. I imagine a lot of people in the USA were watching this game and that’s why the new owners came to buy this club. They saw the potential, they saw the fans, they saw the final – this is the best final ever, in terms of emotion. You see the parade in the city and you see the potential.”

Carragher was a man after Benítez’s own heart, always pestering him for more videos to analyse. Yet perhaps he has chosen well in his subsequent career, suggests Benítez with a wry smile. “As a pundit you can criticise, analyse and you never have to play a game. If you make a mistake it doesn’t matter.”

For the life of an itinerant super-coach can be a lonely one, stuck in your five-star hotel figuring out just how to beat Almería, with the press reminding you it’s a “must-win” game. Then again, so was Istanbul.