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19
Aug 2020
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The relativity of all things

From China

Rafa Benítez

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Albert Einstein
once said, "in the middle of difficulty lies opportunity".

When we made the decision to come to China, we knew there'd be some challenges. Yet the current world situation, with COVID-19 and the resulting special rules set for Chinese football have led to us discovering extra unexpected difficulties, which are hard to understand if you're not living here day to day. We want to view this experience as an opportunity, as a time to learn and improve.

I'm not only referring to football, but also to a way of life, a different culture. How Asia has chosen to confront the pandemic is completely different to Europe and other Western countries. Without going into too much detail, no one can deny that the political management of the pandemic in the West hasn't been ideal – with the collapse of health systems, lack of protection for medical staff and an out of control growth of cases and deaths. Without specific measures on how to confront the problem, and with continued lack of clarity on what the next steps will be, there's a lot of improvisation and avoiding of responsibility whilst hiding behind the errors of others to justify their own mistakes.

This global situation obviously has repercussions in the football world. We all understand the consequences of having had to suspend sports competitions, the Premier League, Serie A, la Liga, the Bundesliga etc. Plus, the Chinese Super League, which was due to start in February but instead had to begin under a different format in July, making the first half last until September. Matches with no crowds, controls and moving around to play matches, how to deal with potentially unwell players or staff which could affect the competitions, their teammates and the team as a whole. We saw this happen in Scotland or France right at the start, and with the second division of Spain when they finished the league. It's happening in all the competitions which are restarting with different levels of impact on the teams. National teams have been affected and travel of players has been reduced to avoid risks and unnecessary quarantines. So then, how can we value results from before and after quarantine in the same way? Everything is relative.

In our team, we had five months of training sessions without official matches, waiting for the start of the competition, with two of our foreign players in quarantine and then later confined to a hotel, training in a public park. Yet now they're expect them to win as if nothing had happened. It isn't possible. So, the results in each competition need to be valued depending on the context in which they take place.

The format of the Champions and Europa Leagues has changed in this final phase of competition. With the English teams knocked out, I can see that analyses of all kinds are starting to be made, this is why we must remember: everything is relative. Before making these analyses, we must consider how the pandemic has affected different groups. Spain and Italy have managed to keep teams in these competitions (with Sevilla and Inter), teams that work well with good managers at the helm who have surely continued to work efficiently in the time during which competitions were suspended. They have managed the workload well. 

Both Liverpool and Manchester City are undoubtedly excellent teams, at the level of some of the best in Europe. Yet, the German teams who are also at the same level potentially had the advantage due to having spent longer working, since their league started earlier, and they've been training during this time with the sole goal of the Champions League. We can't be certain whether that was one of the key elements, but it is true that both RB Leipzig and Bayern Munich appeared to have come with 'an extra gear' compared to their Spanish rivals; Atletico de Madrid and Barcelona respectively. We could say the same about Lyon or even PSG, their league was suspended long time ago and, a very good team like PSG, for example, has had time to concentrate just in the preparation for these games.
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The Chinese League is still being debated now. We are currently 'locked down' in a hotel, in the Olympic area, only leaving to train, to frequently get tested for COVID-19 (I've already taken 13 tests), and to compete every 3-4 days. Only five Chinese 'senior' players can be signed a year, and other teams won't sell these players as there aren't many of them and so they don't wish to let them go. When we arrived, we could only sign three U21 Chinese players (imagine if at Newcastle we could 've only signed three U21 English players? How many high-quality players could we have signed to better the team? Would they have come from our Academy? Would the 'big' teams have sold them to us?). In China therefore, you need at least three years to 'renew' a team.

Now, the league's been divided into two groups of eight, and the competition is played in two phases. To compete for the title, you're playing to be amongst the top four in your group of eight, and those in the bottom four are competing to avoid relegation. When we arrived in China our team was 13th in the league, we managed to finish the season in 9th place. But, being now the youngest team in the division, the main worry we had this year was to ensure that the young players continued to work hard and fight for their team. We know our work will help them grow, but they need to continue working hard, which is another peculiarity of this football, they very quickly lose confidence and need to be reassured often. It's a different sort of mentality, a different kind of competition, it isn't a regular league, where you have nine months to or with and better your players. This new format is quick. You train, compete, rest, and compete again, and there's little time for us to train the basic concepts and principles. This kind of plan would be impossible in Europe, everyone stuck in a hotel – staff, technical staff and players – for two months, only being allowed out to train and play matches, it'd be unthinkable. For this reason, throughout Europe it 's important to remember what Asia has done: masks, social distancing and washing hands constantly are the minimum measures for controlling the pandemic. These will allow time for scientists to find the treatments or vaccine necessary. We must learn from those who have passed through similar times and then we can enjoy football and of course better our economies, without losing sight of what's most important: the people's health.

As well as the excellent training ground that we get to use daily, sometimes there are other positives too; the goal Rondón scored against Jiangsu Suning is similar to the one he scored against Bournemouth at St. James' Park on the 10/11/2018 and this is a great thing for the staff and personnel who always believed in him to see. Now he's already scored four goals and is a pivotal player for us, just as he was in Newcastle.

Another strange thing this year in European football is the short preseason, usually we have six-week preseasons, so adjusting this to the 3-4 weeks that most European teams will have will require a great deal of work from the different specialists within each team. Here a lot of errors can potentially be committed when it comes to workload. But like I said at the start, everything is relative, those who have better players will be able to improve just through competing, because you don't lose quality in competition and even doing just that you will get better physically up to a certain point.

In regard to signings, it's again a strange situation. I've never liked that the transfer market is open whilst the competition is ongoing, during these weeks the players might be thinking about a potential transfer and so don't work with the same level of focus. This'll also happen in China, the transfer market will open in September, so we'll see how the players react. It also won't be normal because the few foreign players we're allowed to sign will have to be in quarantine first (some are already here to make up time), so it would be 'easier' to mainly look at the Chinese market. The issue here, as I said before, is that the other teams won't easily sell players due to this lack of players, so it'll be another complicated transfer market. What we have left then, is the chance to better our own players, trying to change their mentality so that they continue to remain competitive until the very end.

As Albert Einstein said: "Genius is 1% talent and 99% hard work."

Take care,
Rafa Benítez.