After spending six years in charge of Liverpool, 50-year-old Spanish tactician Rafael Benitez kicked off this season in Italy’s second city, where he is preparing to lead FC Internazionale Milano in the FIFA Club World Cup 2010.
The former Real Madrid youth team coach speaks several languages and has an encyclopaedic knowledge of football in three of Europe’s top leagues, so who better than Rafa to represent the Old Continent at the helm of a cosmopolitan team that goes by the name of Internazionale? Displaying the insight and affability that are his hallmarks, Benitez shared his feelings with FIFA.com in an exclusive interview in the run-up to the world’s premier club tournament.
FIFA.com: How is it living so far from England having experienced so many emotions and victories there?
Rafael Benitez: I’m getting on really well in Italy, a country that I was already familiar with from past holidays in Sardinia, but one that I am also learning to appreciate day by day here in Milan. But I have to admit that Liverpool is still in my heart, and even from a distance I follow the latest news on the club. I have a fantastic relationship with the Reds fans and I’m happy that some of them recently came to visit me at the San Siro for the Inter-Tottenham game, the day before the Napoli-Liverpool match. Deep down, the friendly relationship between Liverpool and Inter is due in part to that mythical final in Istanbul, when we beat Inter’s arch-rivals AC Milan.
That UEFA Champions League campaign was followed months later by the FIFA Club World Cup 2005. Has the time come to make amends for your defeat there to Sao Paulo?
I remember that tournament well. My Liverpool team overcame Club Deportivo Saprissa 3-0 in the semi-final, but we lost the final 1-0 to the Brazilians. I was very dismayed by what happened in the closing stages of that match, when we had no fewer than three goals ruled out. I was very angry that day.
Did you learn anything that will stand you in good stead for this campaign?
The climate will be different because this time we’ll be playing in the heat of the United Arab Emirates - we need to know what the temperature will be, I hope it won’t be too extreme - whereas in Japan it was winter. Then we also have to consider how long it takes to adapt to the time zone, which this time is considerably less for the European teams. That’s a positive aspect, from our point of view, because we’ll be able to depart nearer to the event. In 2005 the matches were quite close together and I rotated the team, playing Peter Crouch in the first match - he scored a brace - and Fernando Morientes in the final. It’s likely to be much the same here at Inter, because we have so many players at our disposal and they’re all top class.
Do you already know who your opponents might be?
For now we have concentrated on Brazil’s SC Internacional. I myself watched them play one match and I thought they were fast and technically strong. Before the competition starts we’ll also take a closer look at our other rivals, because although we’re aware of our strengths, we respect the brand of football played on every continent.
How do the scouts at the club work when two lesser-known teams contest a quarter-final that will determine your opponents in the semi-final?
We gather material on both teams and then some of our people watch the match, one for each team. Afterwards we obviously concentrate on the winner and I myself, after reading the reports, will also analyse some footage.
How have you found your first few months at Inter and what differences are there between Italian football and English or Spanish football?
In Spain the game is more technical, in England it’s more physical, while in Italy it’s more tactical. Each country is a challenge and I like to put myself to the test. This year after the World Cup the players came back late and we immediately had to prepare for two cup finals. It hasn’t been easy, but we have strength in depth and the desire to get to Abu Dhabi in peak condition. As for my role, it changes a bit because in the transfer market here in Italy, just as in Spain, the director of football has the final say, whereas in England the coach has more autonomy, even if he still has to answer to the managing director. With both systems it’s possible to do well.
With regard to Spain, what’s the secret that has enabled the national team to become world champions for the first time in their history?
Their secret was being able to count on extremely talented young players and above all finding a way to make their technical abilities mesh well with the intensity of the modern game.
One day would you like to manage Spain or another national side?
I’m still young and for now I prefer to work day-to-day with my club and try to win at European and world level. In the future, why not?
I have to admit that Liverpool is still in my heart, and even from a distance I follow the latest news on the club. I have a fantastic relationship with the Reds fans.