When it comes to football, I’ve never been the type to hold grudges. There’s a certain class of fan that treats every player departure or managerial shortcoming as a sort of personal betrayal, but I don’t. I accept that most football figures are professionals who do the best they can, and I’m enough of a Pollyanna hippie kind of dude to genuinely wish everyone well.* It makes me sincerely happy to see what Ranieri is doing with Leicester. I’ll always hope for the best from Stramaccioni, and I’m even glad that grumpy ol’Gasperini got his deserved career as a lower-midtable manager back on track. Ibrahimovic will remain one of my all-time favorite players, and I would love to see Balotelli reach his potential. I try to watch Real Madrid when I see Kovacic is starting, and I’ve watched Liverpool just to see Coutinho. No hard feelings, everyone. Smile on your brother.
There is one plus-sized Iberian exception to this rule, however. I make absolutely no apologies for celebrating the sacking of Rafael Benitez as manager of Real Madrid yesterday, and I feel no guilt for kicking him when he’s down. He is, after all, the man who ruined Inter.
(Yeah, I know, this is all ancient history. But for all the general grief he gets from Inter fans, I don’t think he’s ever been properly brought to task for his role in the club’s abysmal recent history, a nightmare from which we are only now awaking. Plus, there are no Inter matches to talk about until the weekend, and we’ve got to talk about something.)
To be fair, there were numerous non-Rafa factors (Rafactors?) that contributed to this team’s fall from grace. Our squad was rapidly aging, and a smarter management would have began a gradual, targeted process of squad renewal right away. There’s also the matter of the infamous third-year Jose Mourinho team collapse, which Mourinho cleverly avoided at Inter by leaving before it began. And we all now know that Massimo Moratti’s drunken-sailor financial planning strategy was reaching its breaking point. These were all important. Sure.
But even granting Benitez all this, he still crippled this team psychologically, and his tenure at Inter should be included as a what-not-to-do case study for coaching courses well into the future. First and foremost, he was quite possibly the worst man-manager I've ever seen in my life. It’s one thing to have a set of preferred tactics, an overall managerial philosophy, a style of play you like to cultivate. But if you don’t take into account that there are 20-plus human beings – with feelings and flaws and specific individual qualities – who you need to win over and adapt your tactics to, then all your brilliant chalkboard strategies won’t amount to anything. (Why do so many managers not see this? It’s like a chef who keeps cooking the same three dishes no matter what ingredients he has, and then wonders why his kimchee-and-Frosted Flakes soufflé doesn’t rise.) In Rafa’s case, he followed a manager who had cultivated such a cult of personality that the players were willing to kill and die for him, and immediately set himself up in opposition to that manager. (This would be like Tim Cook starting his tenure as Apple CEO by saying, "Steve Jobs – man, fuck that guy.") He wore already exhausted players to the ground through pointless weight training. Tactically, he took steps to make the team "more attacking" that ironically only resulted in a team that scored fewer goals. It was a botch from minute one.
Inter’s cycle of dominance ended the moment the confetti was cleaned up after the Club World Cup, a mostly empty victory that Benitez somehow saw as a license to make demands. We got one last burst of enthusiasm thanks to his replacement, who wasn’t really much of a coach – it’s no coincidence Leonardo has yet to manage a team since – but at least he allowed the team to play football again, and they responded with enough grinta to mount a second-place finish, knock Bayern out of the Champions League, and win the Coppa Italia.** But these were just the last echoes of our fading greatness. Under Rafa, something very important at this club died.
For a while in 2010, Inter looked set to establish a strong foothold among Europe’s big boys. No longer just dominating a weakened Serie A and floundering in the continent, we had become a force to be reckoned with, the kind of club that could attract promising young talents on reputation alone. Thanks to Benitez, the momentum screeched to a halt almost as soon as it got going. Our aura of invincibility dissipated, teams were no longer scared to play us, we quickly ceased to be a desirable destination for that top tier of talent, and our improbable treble victory came to be regarded as one of Mourinho’s managerial miracles, rather than a proud moment for a great team.
And Benitez put a premature end to the Second Grande Inter through those most inexcusable of managerial flaws – hubris and selfishness. He never cared about doing what was right for this team, all he cared about was his own legacy, about sticking it to Liverpool and one-upping Mourinho. At the time, Benitez had just been fired after four straight seasons without any titles at Liverpool, yet he still saw himself as an unjustly-maligned genius. His players at Inter had just won every title imaginable mere months earlier, yet he still saw them as a second-rate squad that needed four or five new signings just to be competitive. Under Benitez, that whole squad lost its swagger and never regained it, and it’s taken a top-to-bottom overhaul of the Inter organization to get anything moving again.
Hubris, of course, was often the great leveler in Greek tragedy, the fatal flaw that brings down heroes and villains alike. But what was so galling about Rafa’s hubris was that it didn’t really bring about his downfall, but ours. This team descended into a half-decade shame-spiral following his sacking, with poor results leading to panic buys and panic firings, leading to more poor results and more panic buys. Meanwhile Benitez kept half-assing his way into some of the most enviable jobs in world football. He got to sweep into London just long enough to gloat over a Europa League title for a team he hadn’t put together. This bought him a ticket to Napoli, where he was allowed to go on the biggest spending spree in the club’s history, and went on to do worse with the team than Walter Mazzarri had done with a considerably cheaper squad. (The previously little-known, far lesser-paid Maurizio Sarri is currently doing better than Benitez with almost exactly the same squad.) He then somehow parlayed his mediocrity at Napoli into a coaching gig with the most expensive group of professional athletes on earth. A man who hadn’t won a league title since Mateo Kovacic celebrated his 10th birthday was put in charge of a team containing Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and James Rodriguez. It was infuriating to watch.
Ironically, Benitez was getting better results at Madrid than he did at Napoli, Inter, or his last stretch with Liverpool, yet it’s Real who have dished him his most high-profile humiliation. It may have taken almost exactly five years, but Inter is finally on its way back to the top, and Rafa has been found out. This makes me happy – no apologies necessary.
*Unless they go to Juve, which is tantamount to treason.
** Also important, Samuel Eto’o’s ludicrous final season with the club. The man scored 37 goals in all competitions in 2010-11, which I believe is the highest total single-season tally for any Inter player since 1913. It’s a shame most of us were too consumed with stressing out over the aborted Rafalution at the time to enjoy it.