Say what you will about Real Madrid and the way things end for many of its senior employees, but the club is good at starts. It know hows to organize a mean introductory press conference.
Like Gareth Bale being paraded in front of thousands of fans at the Bernabéu when he was signed in 2013. Or Rafael Benítez, introduced as the club’s new coach today in front of a lovely background picture of the stadium filled with fans. (With the actual, empty stadium visible behind, a nice M.C. Escher touch. Surreal Madrid.)
The Rafa unveil took more than an hour. There’s a nice photo on the El Real official site of Benítez standing with president Florentino Pérez in front of eight golden trophies. Benítez looks slightly queasy, as if Pérez has just told him: “Look, eight trophies! That’s your minimum target for next season.”
Pérez, naturally, downplayed expectations in front of the media to avoid putting pressure on his new coach. What? Oh. “Here in Real Madrid the demands are great and nothing is ever enough,” he said.
It was an emotional moment for Benétez: realizing a dream by returning to his boyhood club on a three-year deal which, obviously, he won’t complete. In the past 25 years, only two El Real coaches have lasted at least three years: Vicente del Bosque and José Mourinho. Del Bosque was let go after winning the Champions League twice. Fabio Capello was fired in 2007, less than two weeks after leading Madrid to its first La Liga title in four years.
According to Sky Sports, the average Real tenure is 16 months in the past four decades, and no Real manager has survived a trophyless season in the past 32 years. There are two certainties about being in charge at the Bernabéu: don’t win trophies and you’ll quickly get axed; win trophies and you’ll get axed anyway, just a little later on.
Benítez, as he acknowledged, is tasked with playing attractive soccer and winning big trophies. Neither of which he seems especially good at.
Sure, there was golden-age Rafa, the early years of the new millennium, when he made Valencia into Spain’s best team, twice winning La Liga and lifting the UEFA Cup (google it, kids). Then there was the magic of his first two years at Liverpool, when he entered into Anfield legend by winning the Champions League, the FA Cup and the Super Cup. (Then nothing for four years.)
Inter Milan, well, that was a short-lived failure, despite the Club World Cup in 2010. Chelsea? He did a very good job as an extraordinarily unpopular interim boss, winning the Europa League in 2013 and steering the club into third in the English Premier League. Then came Napoli and the Coppa Italia.
So we have to go back a decade, to that freakish Champions League victory over AC Milan in Istanbul after being 3-0 down at half time, to find Benítez winning the kind of silverware that will impress Pérez. And we have to go back to 2008-09 to find the last time a Benítez team finished as high as second in a league.
So in order to stay at Madrid for the long haul (let’s define “long haul” as two years), Benítez isn’t only going to have to defy that club’s trigger-happy culture; he’s going to have to buck the trends of his own recent history.