The first time I saw Rafa Benítez in person was during an informal chat immediately after a game with a few fans of a group I was running at the time. The truth is none of the organisers of that meeting would have bet a penny that the coach would actually turn up. And not because, according to football practice, a person of his standing (he had been for some time one of the best coaches in the world) is usually inaccessible to the general public. No. He would have nothing to do with elitism. It was because he was known for never taking a break from work. And of course, straight after the match, it was understood that the first thing someone like him would do is go over the notes he had made during the 90 minutes, and the last thing he would do was to meet a group of over-enthusiastic interlopers. Therefore it was a surprise to see him appear at the agreed place and time.
Astonished by this, there was nobody who thought that the meeting would last longer than 5 minutes. A mere formality (a doctor’s visit as my mum would say). A few photos and autographs and another job done. That is the norm in these situations. Besides it would be more than enough. Much more than expected. So at that point in proceedings people were more than satisfied. But with a guy who sorted out a mess one night in May in Istanbul (yes, he of the comeback against Milan in a Champions League Final lost from the first whistle), I suppose that things are never as you would expect. It began to dawn on us. Second surprise of the night. As if he was one of us, the only thing on his mind being to pass the time exchanging views on what had happened on the pitch, our hero began to socialize amiably with each and every one of those present without paying any attention to the time.
It was all becoming interesting but it was to get even better. Not that I am experienced in dealing with professional football people but what I am sure of is that it was not difficult to imagine the conversations between the sports daily newspaper men and those who move these circles. A cluster of platitudes and cliches or, what amounts to the same thing, an unfulfilling chat which will not be remembered by either party. Or maybe by one of them, but it wouldn’t be much of a memory, only a vague one. Third surprise - to be introduced to the Boss and for him to start telling interesting stories was another one. From the story of a young Rafa, still in the process of learning, who gained the confidence of a group of disruptive students when they discovered that they had a lot in common with him (and note that we are talking about chocolate horns on sale in grocery stores) then followed by his refusal to abandon this story out of loyalty to those he was addressing (note this as well, with his mobile in his hand showing the record of incoming calls proving that indeed an offer had been made by another club) and finishing with meanderings through various neighbourhoods of Madrid. Unforgettable .
Since that night, I have not had the chance to speak to the coach in similar circumstances. That’s a pity. Because it was a pleasure. That’s true, and I always say the same thing when I am in other forums talking about Rafa: be careful if you are in a private conversation with him some time, he will surprise you, at least 3 times.