Amidst the recurring malcontent that has peppered Chelsea’s season, there has been one man who has stood firm to enhance his interpersonal and managerial skills under the sternest tests, and that is Rafael Benitez. No manager facing the overwhelming pressure that stalks big clubs can also claim to have had to deal with a hand of cards as difficult as Benitez’s – including those held by his much-vaunted nemesis at Real Madrid, Jose Mourinho, whose deific stature in the eyes of Chelsea fans trips the Spaniard’s every forward step even now. Benitez has been buffeted at every treacherous twist and turn by slights and insults as varyingly vilifying as being jeered by Chelsea’s fans at every opportune moment in a match, greeted by silence whenever his tactical switches induce a positive turn in events, being forced to bear the emasculating title of “interim manager” despite carrying the CV of a Champions League winner and two-time La Liga winner with one of Spain’s “other” clubs, enduring his own fans teaming up with those of the opposition to abuse him in songs, and having a fellow colleague in charge of a great rival completely ignore his offer of a handshake at the beginning of a game.
Throughout this steadily growing flood of insults and invective aimed at him from every angle, that would have tormented and broken the spirit of a lesser man, he has displayed an admirable resolve not to let his personal hurt get in the way of his professional job. As provoking as it must be to have his weight and entire personality dissected by wanton abuse on a weekly basis for six months – and we need only recall Emmanuel Adebayor’s knee-jerk reaction to Arsenal fans who had been abusing him for 90 minutes against Man City to acknowledge the tolerance threshold of lesser men– his steady resolve to resist the invitation to lash out at his abusers in interviews has given him an aura of quiet dignity and increasing authority. Goaded repeatedly and insolently by Geoff Shreeves to react to the catcalls that greeted his first match in charge and express his disappointment (view it here), Benitez diplomatically chose to explain that he had not heard them and his only disappointment stemmed from the draw that hurt Chelsea’s cause. This was of course necessitated by a realisation that fanning the flames of the fans’ anger could result in an even shorter stay than originally intended, but as the weeks went on and the abuse became more virulent, his ability to stay on message displays both the greatest professional steel and reserves of character, patience and equanimity that not enough people have given him credit for.
“I am professional”, he said in a recent attempt to gain more crowd support for Chelsea’s cause, and “will do my best until the last minute.” Even following Sir Alex Ferguson’s puerile decision to snub his offer of a handshake, Benitez largely contained his understandable affront by tactfully asking journalists to redirect the question of why the handshake failed to take place to the Manchester United manager instead.
Benitez has always been credited with tactical acumen that is in keeping with the mind of an avid chess player, and his decision to introduce John Obi Mikel to free up Ramires to make his rampaging forays towards the United penalty area in their FA Cup clash flummoxed the home team and nearly claimed a glorious comeback. Yet in being forced to summon up hitherto unnoticed qualities of diplomatic tact and personal restraint to deal with the bear pit at Chelsea, he has finally added stature to his tactical skills to emerge as a firm and fair leader of men who puts to shame those who characterised him as a “fat Spanish waiter” for so long. Only Benitez knows how much he has learnt about himself by coming through his siege at Chelsea with flying colours, but this stiffest character examination may have just invaluably enriched his skills as a manager and provided him the means to unlock far greater success in the future. Would this reborn Benitez, in possession of a fine tactical mind along with the ability to inspire his players through his new statesmanlike example off the pitch, have succeeded where the old one failed at Inter Milan? Are Chelsea not in fact missing a trick by opting against helping a highly able manager who has demonstrated an admirable – and hitherto unnoticed – capacity to endure the worst dirt people can throw at him and emerge stronger for it weather the storm and work with a talented squad that has many Spanish speakers at its core for longer?
Observant clubs across Europe would have done well not to miss the way Benitez bravely plunged himself into the fire at Chelsea and is emerging stronger and better than before as a result. If he does end up at Real Madrid, his stoic, remarkable ability to conjure up positive results and build personal authority in the face of an avalanche of political intrigue, boardroom machinations, and reckless populist barracking may stand him in good stead to add the proudest chapter to his CV yet. Wherever he goes, and whatever he does next, this dignified man may find that his sincerest efforts at a difficult posting will end up enhancing his career from this point on and ironically, he may have Chelsea’s fans to thank for that.