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Why Rafa and Real Madrid is potentially comedy gold

Ahead of their Champions League tie against PSG, Tommy Martin sees the funny side of Benitez dealing with the madness at his current club.

Benitez preparing his team earlier this week.
Benitez preparing his team earlier this week.
Image: AP/Press Association Images

AS FAR AS inappropriate couplings go, Real Madrid and Rafa Benitez isn’t in the league of Woody Allen and Soon Yi, David Bowie and Bing Crosby, or Tayto’s cheese ‘n’ onion chocolate bar.

In fact, it’s arguable that Benitez – with his cold pragmatism – should be the perfect balance to Real’s haughty self-indulgence.

He’s successful too, which suits Real.

In the fourteen seasons it has taken Benitez to accumulate 12 trophies, Real have managed to win – including various Super Cups and intercontinental baubles – 14, but that’s a modest return for a club that spends more money than any in the history of the game and has a structural advantage over all but one of its domestic rivals.

On the other hand, prior to his appointment, Real had already just sacked their perfect manager.

Carlo Ancelotti, who won the club’s prized tenth Champions League title in his first season, was custom-made to coach at Real.

His CV is a record of success at high-end, high maintenance, big spending juggernauts, jobs which required the unassuming Italian to tend to the whims of the rich and powerful in board and dressing room, like a quietly efficient five-star hotel concierge.

So when news broke that Benitez would replace Ancelotti, it seemed so perfectly doomed a notion that you began to suspect Real were just doing this shit on purpose.

Real, like all great football clubs, is a soap opera, at times the most ludicrously plotted of them all.

But by hiring Benitez, they were veering into the realm of sitcom.

That’s because there is something about Benitez – obstinate, misunderstood, neurotic, a bit of a stuffed shirt – and Real that is reminiscent of countless classic TV comedy set-ups.

Mr McKay in Porridge, with Sergio Ramos as scheming Norman Stanley Fletcher; Captain Mainwaring in Dad’s Army, with Gareth Bale as simple-minded Private Pike; Albert Steptoe, with Ronaldo as his despairing, aspirational son Harold.

Putting someone with his notorious disregard of folderol and ego in charge of the peacocks of the Bernabeu felt potentially, hilariously disastrous.

And Benitez didn’t have to wait long for madcap plotlines straight from the pen of Clement and La Frenais.

The deadline day fiasco over the non-arrival of David De Gea and resulting non-departure of Keylor Navas must have reddened the coach’s cheeks like a touchline spat with Alex Ferguson might once have done.

If that twist left the coach unamused, Benitez didn’t let on, instead talking up the Costa Rican keeper who trudged back from Barajas airport and into Real’s first team.

Meanwhile, the mischievous Madrid press corps had been busy mining what they hoped would be a rich seam of behind-the-scenes aggravation: the relationship between Benitez and Ronaldo.

The coach’s notorious dressing room froideur was detailed recently in Steven Gerrard’s autobiography.

“I don’t think Rafa Benitez liked me as a person,” Gerrard wrote of their time together at Liverpool.

“At press conferences he might call other players by their first name but I was always ‘Gerrard’. It was the same in the dressing room. He would read out the team and use nicknames. But, for me, it would just be ‘Gerrard’.”

But where Gerrard wanted to be liked, Ronaldo needs to be worshipped. The first diplomatic nicety required of any Real coach – declaring Ronaldo the best player in the world – was spurned by Benitez.

“To say that he is one of the best in the world I believe is sufficient,” the newly appointed coach grudgingly offered in July.

Prodded subsequently about whether Ronaldo was the best player he’d ever coached, Rafa held back again: “He is among the best, and I cannot say the best, because I have coached some very good players.”

Then, in September, an exasperated Benitez relented: “He is the best player in the world and, from now onwards, each time that you ask me I am going to say yes, let’s end this issue about what I said and focus on what happens on the pitch!”

Made you say it!

France Soccer Champions League Who's the best, Rafa? Source: Thibault Camus

Happily for Real and Benitez, the astonishing form of Navas, as much as top-scorer Ronaldo, has helped the team to the top of both La Liga and Champions League group tables.

Real have scored more and conceded fewer goals than any other team, with Navas conceding just three in 12 matches in all competitions.

All this despite suffering an injury crisis which has denied them the services of Bale, Benzema and Rodriguez in recent weeks.

But this being Real, even that seemingly straightforward collection of facts isn’t without its quirkiness.

Benitez has had to defend himself against charges of excessive conservatism, critics holding up that superb defensive record as proof of the fact, while ignoring the ‘goals for’ column.

For a football coach, this was akin to a 17th century witch-dunking trial: if he floats, he’s guilty, drown and he was innocent all along.

The time-honoured structure of a situation comedy has it that nothing should ever change for the main protagonists.

As Graham Linehan puts it: “The characters start off in a certain situation, they get into trouble and then they get back to the beginning.”

In this sense Benitez is unlikely to follow the sitcom pattern. Rather, the job of Real Madrid coach is more like another classic light entertainment staple, Doctor Who.

The Real coach always regenerates, sooner rather or later.

Benitez may turn out to be a much-loved Tom Baker, or a passing Christopher Eccleston, but the credits will roll eventually.

You might catch it all on UK Gold sometime.

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About the author:

Tommy Martin

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