Thursday 12 December 2019

Dion Fanning: Florentino Perez's shield, Rafa Benitez, eventually became battered in battle

Real Madrid president Florentino Perez presents Rafa Benitez at the Santiago Bernabeu last June
Real Madrid president Florentino Perez presents Rafa Benitez at the Santiago Bernabeu last June
Cartoonist: Tom Halliday

Dion Fanning

When Rafa Benitez turned out to be just like Rafa Benitez, Real Madrid had no choice but to take decisive action. Benitez became the 11th manager Florentino Perez had dismissed last week during his two spells at the club.

Once again, the president regretted what he had to do, but he had to do it. Madrid supporters are said to be unhappy with the president, so doing nothing was not an option.

Benitez was said to be a shield for Perez during his seven months at the Bernabeu, but the problem with a shield is eventually it becomes battered in battle.

As he was appointed, Zinedine Zidane made the type of standard rallying cry which shouldn't be viewed as embellishment at Real Madrid. "We have the best club in the world and the best fans in the world," he said, and while the first part of the statement should be true, there are many ways in which it isn't.

Certainly Benitez, Carlo Ancelotti and Manuel Pellegrini might wonder if it is the best club in the world, but then Florentino Perez has been demonstrating for a long time that they are an irrelevance in his worldview. Change is all that matters.

Madrid remain relevant through constant re-altering. When Jeff Bezos took over the Washington Post, he told the staff that "all businesses need to be young forever". At Madrid, the richest club in the world, change is essential. They may have surrendered credibility to Barcelona, they may not be run as a football club should be, although nobody can be sure exactly how a football club should be run, but they have embraced another tenet of Bezos's and they are never boring.

Considering the alleged working practices at Bezos's Amazon, some might wonder if they had been exploring the philosophical contention that the cure for boredom is suffering and those who coach Real Madrid are never bored either. Their suffering is alleviated by the great salaries they are paid to do the job, and the knowledge that whatever torment they endure, it won't be for long.

Of course, they made a mistake in dismissing Carlo Ancelotti, but not one they can't recover from, and they may have made a mistake in thinking Benitez was the right man to manage the talent show, even as he attempted to demonstrate that he could by doing things that didn't come naturally.

Ancelotti is an agreeable man, and he may have been the best possible manager for Real Madrid, not because he is a great coach, but because he exhibits a great stillness in the company of rich and egotistical people.

The players liked being around Ancelotti. He is a man who has learned not to question the worldview of those he works for or those he coaches.

Benitez, of course, was very different. He remains admired by some and mocked by others for essentially the same reason: his refusal to believe that anyone has a better idea of what to do in any given situation than he does.

There are footballers who enjoy working with Benitez, but they tend to be less in need of reassurance than, say, Steven Gerrard, or less in need of reaffirmation of their place in the firmament than, say, Cristiano Ronaldo.

Benitez may have felt that he had nothing to lose by taking the Real Madrid job. Everyone knows what will happen eventually, as everyone knows what will happen to Zidane. When he left, many felt that it demonstrated again the dysfunction of Madrid, and no blame could be attached to the manager, but Benitez could probably do with a little bit more than that at this stage in his career.

If he had taken the West Ham job last summer, he might have found a squad more open to his ideas on which is the best part of the foot to kick with, and he may have demonstrated what he is good at once more.

He works best with those who feel they are an underdog, and believe Benitez can help them beat the odds. At Madrid, they have beaten the odds, they are the winners in life, and they didn't need Benitez telling them how they could have been even better.

Real Madrid will continue to be criticised and they will continue not to care. "Madrid's plan is that there is no plan, there is no project. The plan is Florentino Pérez," said one writer in Marca last week.

Madrid seem to represent all that is wrong with modern sport. Looking at them it is easy to become misty-eyed, to believe there was a time when people in football were different. They weren't. They just had less money.

Football club owners and chairman may or may not have cared more about football in the past, but they rarely went as far as caring too much about footballers.

Tom Finney, for example, played in the golden age ('a saner age', The Guardian called it when he died). When he wanted to go to Italy, Finney was told that wouldn't be happening by his chairman, Nat Buck. "What does tha' want going to Italy for, Tom? You can forget about that. If tha' doesn't play for us, tha' doesn't play for anybody."

So Tom Finney forgot about that, sticking with Preston North End, living in the saner age where there were no brash and ostentatious displays of wealth from young men like Tom Finney, mainly because they had no real wealth to be ostentatious about.

All ages are, of course, saner when viewed from a safe distance, but Gareth Bale, say, might feel some relief that he is living in an age when Florentino Perez can make him the most expensive signing in the world, rather than working for Nat Buck.

Bale is said to be unhappy with the dismissal of Benitez and may consider his options in the summer. He has options of course, but so too do Real Madrid. They are tormented by the tyranny of choice, but it's what keeps them relevant. They have all the options in the world, and they never stop using them.

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