Last week we added an interview with midfielder Xabi Alonso, translated from Spanish newspaper ‘AS’. And AS published another brilliant interview over the weekend, this time with manager Rafa Benitez.
Translations provided courtesy of Alex, aka AnotherSpanishFan.
How’s the kidney?
– Hush, hush! First they found a stone and then they said I had a perforation/hole in the kidney. I had to go through three general anesthetic procedures for the first time in my life. I missed our game at Arsenal‘s pitch, first I’ve missed in 22 years. I had a very high fever on the eve of that game.
The first in 22 years’¦
– The manager plays every match eh? I’m going all the way back to my days coaching Madrid’s youth teams. I started out very young. At 26 I was already managing.
You had to quit playing because of a knee injury.
– It happened at the ‘˜Universada’ in Mexico, 1979. I was part of the Spanish quad that took part in that tournament. We beat Cuba 4-0 and then Canada showed up, I was hit from behind and goodbye it was. It was on the same day that Pietro Mennea, the great Italian sprinter, beat the 200 meter World Record with a mark of 19.72.
It stood for 17 years, until Michael Johnson beat it in 1996. And how good a player were you?
– I could’ve played in Primera. Horacio de Leiva, our manager in Mexico and later the President of the School of Referees, proposed me to sign for Oviedo. I was playing for Real Madrid’s lower-division teams when ButragueÃ±o arrived. Chendo and Michel were also around. They were the good ones but every time they played for us we would lose. I played as a holding midfielder but I felt more comfortable playing as a ‘˜libero’. I had a better perspective of the game from that position.
You were already thinking like a manager.
– At 13 years old I was already doing the team-sheets, I would rate the other lads. I liked to organize things even if it was just for my own enjoyment. At the INEF I was a player-manager. I would sit on the stands and manage the team and when I thought I needed to take part on the match I would go on the pitch. I was balancing that with managing Real Madrid’s youth team. You know what? My classes would end at 5 pm, which was the same time our training session started. I would rush through the halls and get there at about half-past with the stretching and warm-ups all done. Those of us who were not stars had to fight very hard to make a name for ourselves.
Yet, perhaps those were truly the happy days.
– At that time you’re less aware of certain things. You’re so involved in everything that you don’t think’¦I remember that after the first month training Real Madrid’s youth team I was 4 kilos under my normal weight. I would eat in a hurry, a plate with lentils and off you go!, to train the team. And besides all that I was enrolled in the School of Medicine at Alcala de Henares.
You had to quit of course.
– Yes, I couldn’t keep up. When I received the Honorary Degree at the University of Miguel Hernandez in Elche I was ecstatic because I always wanted to get my Doctorate at the INEF and I was never able to do so because of work. Sometimes I reflect back on those things and it all seems surreal. At Madrid I went months at a time working seven days a week, already as a manager. One day at Castilla ,the next day working alongside Garcia Remon with the first team, then coach the reserves in the lower divisions under the orders of Del Bosque, who was responsible for the whole setup’¦ And I also taught at a school! And of course the games, I would watch as many as possible on the weekends, between 10 and 12.
And all of this with a girlfriend?
– Impossible! That came afterward, when I was a bit more calm, ha, ha!
Who are you most grateful to?
– Ramon Martinez (current General Manager at Celta) he promoted me every season. I will always be grateful to him and also I’ll always remember when Del Bosque told me: ‘œThere are no football managers, Rafa. There are people who manage football and you will manage for many years.’
He was right. If you got the chance at Liverpool it is because you proved your worth in Spain.
– There were some moments, not every situation was the same. I arrived at Valencia after Cuper had done a terrific job there. The team was very strong and we just were able to raise the bar. At Tenerife and Extremadura it was different, both in Second Division and both times we won promotion. At Tenerife, competing with teams like Atletico, Sevilla and Betis.
What’s the problem now with the Liverpool owners?
– England is different to Spain. Here, if you have a one year contract you have nothing’¦ and I only have 18 months left. If people realise this, that the manager only has that time left, he’s dead. I have between ten and twelve collaborators whose contracts run out in June. What project can a manager develop if he doesn’t have his work-team secured for two or three years? Ah! And let’s clear up one thing: I never asked for absolute power; capacity to make decisions and to maneuver, yes. It’s not the same thing.
United and Chelsea have a lot more money than Liverpool. Even City now.
– United get a revenue of 65 mil euros more than us every year and they have the capability of buying three 20 million players every season. Chelsea will have spent Â£500 million over the past five years. We have built an entire team but economically we’re inferior and yet we are able to compete with them. There are plenty of stats to bore you with: United, only on Berbatov, spent Â£32m; every year they spend as they need to: Â£20m on Hargreaves, another Â£20m on Nani, Â£18m for Anderson. Seven years ago they spent Â£45m for Ferdinand! I, on the five years I’ve been here, spent less than Â£40m on Torres and Keane. There’s no discussion!
And what about Arsenal, Rafa?
– It’s a different philosophy. They sign a lot of young players but if they must spend 7 mil on one, like Ramsey for example, they do it. Or 18 for Arshavin’¦
And Alex Ferguson?
– He controls everything here, it’s a fact, it is what it is. And since he felt the need to talk about Liverpool I had to respond.
In your peculiar English.
– I made the mistake of not taking up classes when I arrived. I lack the vocabulary and the grammar. My daughters speak with the purest Liverpool lingo and quite often I don’t understand what they’re saying. I end up asking them to speak to me in Spanish. Claudia, the oldest, was 6 when we arrived in Liverpool. At first she was lost but after six months she came home with a teacher’s note that read: ‘œCongratulations, your daughter has recovered her voice’. She never stopped talking. Agata, the youngest, is six now. Her English is better than her Spanish.
And the food?
– No problems there. I’m a meat-lover and Scottish meat is very good. And at home we never lack the Spanish dishes like paella, omelets or lentils.
And the public relations?
– My wife does a better job than me. She belongs to a NGO that fights against cancer, she often visits a hospital and when I come along I do my bit. Most weeks we play 3 matches; I live in my own world, but it’s your family’s life that changes the most. I arrive at the club at 9 am and leave between 6 and 7 pm’¦I haven’t done much holiday traveling. I know Liverpool, Chester, the lakes area, to the north.
The big match against Madrid is only 10 days away. What are your expectations?
– I have the experience of our games against BarÃ§a, who were the favourites then and we knocked them out. We were unlucky on the draw but so were Real. The outlook is different on each case: Madrid’s whole season rests on the Champions, we’re still fighting for the League. We’ll have to see in what condition some of the players arrive. Torres is still looking for his best form yet, for example.
– We have to find the positive side and that is that we’ll play less games and we can concentrate on the Premier and the Champions League. The Premier is very competitive, more so than La Liga. You have to be on top of your game or any team can make things difficult for you with their direct approach, they fight until the end. We’ve never lost control of the games but we’re lacking on finishing off teams. Our problem is that we have great expectations surrounding us. The Premier, the Premier, we haven’t won it in 19 years! And when the Champions League time comes, then lets win it’¦In these years we’ve won four titles, played in seven finals, another CL semifinal. We are where we need to be, the problem now is the anxiety, we have to manage it and it’s not always easy.
Gerrard is like Liverpool’s Raul? How’s he doing?
– Recovering. Injuries happen and you need to treat them properly. And yes, you can compare him to Raul in many ways. He’s a charismatic footballer, with an enormous heart; his personality touches others. He always assumes responsibility and his effort never dwindles. Raul meets all these virtues and perhaps even more because of his longer experience. I’ve known him since he was 14 years old and he was at Atletico’s youth team. He’s always shined because of his character. I’m not surprised he’s still first-choice, he’s been a winner since he was a young lad.
Hows your relationship with Florentino?
Madrid would be the icing on the cake, the climax on your career?
– If I say yes, some people will interpret it as me saying I want to go; if I say no it will seem like a snub to Madrid’¦The proper thing and the reality is to answer that I’m not thinking about leaving and I hope I can stay here for a long time. Would Madrid be the icing on the cake in the career of any manager? No doubt about it! Although that sounds like the final stages of someone’s profession and that isn’t my case.