Thursday, November 5, 2009
The Rafa Benitez Chronicles Part One
He had already memorized the team sheet, memorized the formations and counter formations in case Lyon went a goal up in the first twenty-five minutes, where he would slot Voronin in case the first Lyon goal came after the first half. But this, different: the sweat on his palms, the trouble he had gripping his pencil as he jotted notes in the tunnel while Lee said whatever it was he felt needed to be said to the dressing room.
And then out. The beauty of Stade Gerlan, Tony Garnier's utopian vision, improved over the years but with some of the original charm still intact. Still, not a proper football stadium, not a crumbling Anfield, a loud and garish Bernabeu. The light on the grass was perfect though, almost blue. It reminded him of some far off field, from probably before his Aficionado days, playing in some field in Madrid under lights for the first time. His first European night.
"If they they put the hurt on Torres, two three defenders muscling him in the air, we'll make sure Benayoun pushes up," he said to no one in particular. He noticed Lee looking at a notebook of his own. This was a new thing, but Rafa was not in a position to ponder the meaning of this change. His players were warming up.
He thought of the lights at Anfield. When he first arrived there he'd asked about the boot room, but the steward said it was long gone. His English wasn't as manageable then, so he got a few odd looks when he tried to mention he heard Elton John had passed through as Watford chairman. He remembered the steward placing a patronizing hand on his shoulder, "yes, Elton John, good English music. English rock and roll."
Later, he remembered getting taken out on the field and spotting the Kop, instantly remembering the way it shook and swayed as Liverpool fought off St. Etienne in the quarterfinal 1977. He didn't know then he'd see it shake that way again in front of Chelsea, and that bastard Mourinho. Not so long ago. He could remind the press about that.
He asked Sammy, "the away supporters?"
"I don't know. Somewhere back there I think."
But when the whistle blew for kick off, his mind retreated back into into the safety of the tactical layout, observing if players strayed too far from the mark, managed to maneuver in such a way that could feel in the gaps left behind by Gerrard. It was always exhausting; he felt like HAL, his mind going pieces at a time, set-piece by set-piece, corner by corner. The awkwardness of Carragher as fullback, the sullen drives of Gomis. All the while he paced the technical area like a dealer overseeing his corner, knowing at the end of the day's business, everything had to be accounted for.
Then half-time. He jotted down his last few notes, and still, the pencil was awkward to hold, wet in his hands. He turned to Lee: "Could you. Could you please start the team talk? I need to go check something."
"And...what are you jotting down in that notebook?" He asked as kindly as he could, which wasn't very kindly at all. Lee looked a bit caught off guard.
"Um, some ideas. For the end of the second half."
"They're for me. You know. Not for the players, just so I can remember a few things."
"Okay Sammy. If you'd like to present them, please, just let me know. I'm not a dictator, a General Franco of the bench here. I'll be there in five minutes. Please don't forget to mention the corner incident to Voronin." And so he made his way down the tunnel, not quite knowing where he was going to go.
Part Two this afternoon.