In May 2005, when Rafa Benítez’s Liverpool completed arguably one of the greatest comebacks in football history by beating Carlo Ancelotti’s AC Milan in İstanbul, if you would have told anyone that not only would Ancelotti one day go on to manage Everton, he would be replaced at the Goodison by Benítez himself, people would have called you an idiot and brushed you can your claims aside for actual, realistic prospects.
Because that was the stuff of fantasies, of an alternate universe.
Yet, rather inexplicably, that is exactly how things have panned out.
With Ancelotti’s sudden departure to Real Madrid, the Everton hierarchy were left vastly unprepared to resume their squad-building back from square one. Neither them nor Ancelotti, for that matter, had any plans to move on, but then came a series of happenings in quick succession and before you knew it, Don Carlo was in Madrid, and Everton were rudderless.
Then began a month-long search for the next man to fill Ancelotti’s boots, at the end of which Farhad Moshiri, the de facto chief decisionmaker at Everton, decided on Rafa, with the Spaniard signing a three-year deal reportedly worth £7m per year.
Upon his appointment, Rafa said:
“I am delighted to be joining Everton. Throughout this process I have been greatly impressed by the ambition shown by the senior representatives at the Club and their desire to bring success to this historic Club.
“I believe this is a Club that is going places. I’m determined to play a big part in helping this great Club achieve its ambitions.”
Everton’s Majority Shareholder Farhad Moshiri added:
“Rafa impressed us greatly with his knowledge and experience but, above all, the passion and hunger he showed to join our Club.
“We are appointing Rafa because we believe he will bring success to our Club and to Evertonians. To put it simply – we need to be competing at the top-end of the league and to be winning trophies. Rafa is a proven winner with huge experience in coaching internationally and we have secured the best man to achieve that for us.”
Club chairman Bill Kenwright said:
“Rafa Benitez is joining Everton Football Club at an exciting time. On behalf of the Board of Directors I wish him well in achieving success for our football club – success our supporters long for and deserve.”
In a reaction that surprised absolutely no one, both the fanbases of Liverpool and Everton have been left split with this decision. Rafa is, after all, the very first manager to ever cross the great divide to go and manage a Merseyside club having already boasted the colours of the other one. Many – from both sides – are calling this an act of treason, a step too far for anyone to comprehend and be okay with. Liverpool fans want his face removed from the banner at the Kop that features other Liverpool greats, while Everton fans have been throwing threats and abuses at Rafa’s door (quite literally, in fact). They have not forgotten the “small club” remark the Spaniard sent their way back in 2007, although he has long since clarified his comments.
But there are some who understand and accept the move Rafa and Everton have made. Despite obviously being a sensational turn of events, there’s nuance to this.
Rafa’s connection goes much deeper than the Liverpool Football Club – it’s with the city of Liverpool itself. Rafa may have left Liverpool FC some eleven years ago, but he didn’t leave the city. His family has stayed there ever since and after his LFC days (2004-2010). They are honorary Liverpudlians to this day.
After LFC, Rafa went on to manage Inter Milan (2010), Chelsea (2012-12), Napoli (2013-15), Real Madrid (2015-16), Newcastle United (2016-2019) and Dalian Professional (2019-21), but he did so alone, leaving his family in Liverpool. Living in hotels and other temporary establishments, his homesickness grew over the course of a decade, reaching astronomical heights during his time with Dalian in China. If that wasn’t enough, the COVID-19 pandemic did the rest (much like a lot of us) in hitting home the importance of being with one’s family.
When the 61-year-old left Dalian in January earlier this year to return home to England, he was desperate to return to management (as he has been throughout his career), but he wanted to do so by living close to his family – with them, if possible. But he knew chances of a good enough opportunity were scarce. He would have liked to go back to Newcastle United (he still would), but he couldn’t do so while Mike Ashley owned the club, because of which he left in the first place. He was also well aware that going back to Liverpool Football Club was also not going to be a possibility; Jürgen Klopp had become a cult favourite, perhaps even bigger than himself, and looked set to stay there for at least three more years. That ship had long sailed.
No, Rafa needed a project now, and a project came for him in the form of Everton.
Over the past few seasons, Everton’s hierarchy have made it abundantly clear that they want to take the club to both domestic and European heights, and they’re not going to shy away from spending big, and spend big they have. The appointment of Carlo Ancelotti and the proposed construction of Bramley-Moore Dock (Everton’s new stadium, due to open by 2024) is the clear indication of their intent.
And Rafa fits their bill in more ways than one. He has the “been there, done it” CV that takes care of the credentials. He’s a pragmatist who can make do the best with what he’s got. His ability to be able to set up his teams effectively in one-off matches makes him a specialist for cup competitions, and Everton would surely love a trophy, having not won one since 1995.
Yet, understandably, this is a kind of move that would have put most off. But not Rafa Benítez. The Spaniard is well known for his ability to cleave off emotions from football, listen to his brain over his heart. This isn’t even the first time he has made a controversial move. He spent half a season as Chelsea’s manager on an interim basis a little over eight years ago, having enjoyed a fierce, often pugnacious, rivalry with José Mourinho’s Chelsea in the noughties. Even then, he was thoroughly abused by the Chelsea faithful throughout his stay at the club, despite delivering them a third-place Premier League finish and the UEFA Europa League trophy.
Controversy does not scare him, neither does it affect his capacity to deliver, and that is exactly what Everton are hoping he could reciprocate.
Of course, the work begins immediately. The Spaniard is set to take charge of his side and them to a pre-season tour in the US. How quickly will the Everton fans take to him, if at all, remains to be seen. It will also heavily depend on how quickly he can get things up and running at the Goodison to have any chance of the Everton faithful coming round to accept him. But given his past, patience is not what Rafa will be offered in abundance.