This time 20 years ago, Rafa Benítez found himself getting ready for the most important game ever of his coaching career. 24 hours later, his team, Valencia FC, played the match that proclaimed them champions of 'La Liga' in Malaga. It was a massive milestone that the club had not achieved in 31 years and, thanks to Rafa’s leadership, Valencia FC repeated it just two years later along with winning the UEFA Cup. (2004).
Rafa Benítez opened the doors of his home in Liverpool to commemorate and participate through this interview in the tribute that Radio Valencia Cadena SER and Diario AS have carried out on the 20th anniversary of "La Liga del Abanico" .
What is the first memory that comes to mind about the League won with Valencia in 2002?
First, 20 years have passed, which is a lot. You have to enjoy these good memories whenever you can. After so long, Valencia has not yet won another League, because of how it was achieved, because of the celebrations, the memories are unforgettable and pleasant.
What was the secret of that Valencia?
It was a good, competitive team. I believe that there was an atmosphere of great ambition within the group. We had a lot of players who could play any match, due to the famous rotations. That was the key. Having a competitive team, with young players who wanted to grow, like Curro or Mista, and experienced players, like Ayala, Pellegrino or Carboni, who gave the dressing room a boost. Albelda and Baraja wanted to make a career, Cañizares gave them peace of mind, Palop transmitted energy... You put all that together: experience, youth, enthusiasm... and a new coaching staff that also arrived with the desire to do well.
The coaching staff arrived with enthusiasm, but the team did so after losing two Champions League finals in a row, what dressing room did you find?
(Héctor) Cúper had done a great job and what we did was move the lines forward a little more, being more aggressive at times. A competitive environment was generated within the group. If you have to put Rufete or Angulo, well, as a coach it didn't mean anything to me, because we knew both they were going to perform, with Kily and Vicente was the same. In any position we had generated competitiveness.
At what point did you think you could become champions?
January is when I talked to some veterans and told them that we could be champions. They thought I was crazy. But yes, I was convinced, because I knew how we worked and I knew how Real Madrid did it. They were based more on quality, because they had a lot. On the other hand, we were based on the organization of the group, on being balanced, running a lot, with everyone defending and attacking, and we did it well. The team was growing. Our teams were doing well physically, and in the second half of the season we used to be better. Other teams were going down. I was very confident that we were going to fight and be there, obviously then we did very well and Madrid dropped, but in January I was sure we could win the League.
The League had many moments, I remind him of some and he says what he remembers:
Debut against Real Madrid at Mestalla in Zidane's first game in Spain?
I remember Angulo's goal and some numbers, like the one that reveals that Cañizares had run more than Ronaldo. But I remember the atmosphere. The public connected with the team. These are the kind of games in which tactics have influence, but not as much as the motivation of the players and the intensity.
The Montjuic game, the one with the comeback that they say prevented you from being fired.
I lived that in a different way. People talk about what happened in the stands. But I was not aware of that. I was concentrating on making the substitutions I had to make in a game that was complicated. Everything else, whether they were going to kick me out or not, is part of the intra history that I do not control. Things on the field went well and the team reacted. If I remember correctly in the first thirteen days I think we had six wins and seven draws, it's not that the start of the season was bad, but people thought that you always had to win and be so close to winning. The analyses have to be done in context and at that time it was thought that playing two Champions League finals meant that you had to win the League. But the real context was that we were up against high level rivals.
What changed in that break?
Well, substitutions worked out. You want to put more energy into it and it went well. There are times when you try to do it right and it doesn't work out, other times you're wrong, but it works. In this case they went well for us, due to the reaction and capacity of the players.
The match against Espanyol in Mestalla…
Was that the one where we kept ten on the field? The group generated a tremendous belief. The players were very confident, so that even with only ten you could compete at maximum intensity. In our case, the team believed more and more.
In that game Rubén Baraja emerges as a vital figure, although each player had his moment in that League...
Rubén (Baraja) was key because he came back in January after an injury and scored a lot of goals for us in the second half of the league. But as you say, it is difficult to single one out. Santi (Cañizares) gave peace of mind, Curro (Torres) overlaps didn’t stop, the center backs, everyone, gave peace of mind, security; Carboni gave energy; Albelda was giving balance in the middle of the pitch, Rubén gave us time getting into the box… the work of all of the wingers, and up front Mista, who scored a lot of goals, and Pablo (Aimar), who was hard to control between the lines. It was a team with a lot of balance, it was just that, balance, and with the possibility to change players and maintain that level.
And we arrived in Malaga in the afternoon...
Well, on the same line. I am quite pragmatic and I focus on what I can control, game by game, and that game I was convinced that we would do well, because it was a reliable team. Whether playing at home or away, it was reliable. We knew the importance of the game, but we had the confidence to win. I remember that when we scored the goals and the game was over I touched Pako Ayestaran on the leg and told him: “We did it”.
That day the goals are scored by two defenders, does that tell you something?
It was a team with many people who could score. But there it is Fabio (Aurelio) that was atypical, because he had so much quality that if you put him as a striker, he would play. I used to control the frontal free kicks, they shot five each and I noted what they did. Fabio out of five attempts, used to score four. He was a guarantee of quality. And Ayala in the aerial game was incredible. The fact that they were the goalscorers was a coincidence, because it could have been anyone else because it was a team that many came to, many people wanted to score: Mista, Angulo, Rufete, Vicente, Kily, Baraja... it was a very complete team, we could play attacking football, we could defend, we were very good in the counterattack, we were capable of doing many things right.
If you close your eyes and think about the celebrations, what do you visualise?
Luckily, I have many celebrations in different places and in Valencia I remember many people crying with emotion. When you were passing through the streets, you saw mothers with children celebrating, older people... all those things stay with me, because you remember what a title symbolises for all those people.
The first time you visited Mestalla after you left the club the fans received you with a banner that said: "You gave us the best years of our lives", What does Mestalla mean for Benítez?
For me, and for many people, because I also lived near the stadium, Mestalla holds incredible memories. There you see people with so much passion, with time, a connection is created that makes your feelings better and better. In three years we won three titles and the bond was very strong.
Have you considered returning to Valencia?
In many cases in the past I was asked about that, and many fans ask you the same question. We must analyse the context and moments. At that time, I was a young coach who was called by a big club, I could grow and we grew together. Now, people talk about projects, but in these days a project meant the last three games if you lose them. The context of where and how they are produced are important. The memory is permanent and unforgettable, at the moment, you never know what may happen in the future, but the situations have to be suitable for everyone because if not, it doesn't make sense.
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