RAFA UNCOVERED: Benitez reveals his love of Clint Eastwood films, Bruce Lee, solitaire and Goofy the dog (and shows us his judo moves)
By Craig Hope for the Daily Mail
Published: 22:30 GMT, 21 February 2019 | Updated: 00:56 GMT, 22 February 2019
Rafa Benitez springs to his feet, grabs an unsuspecting member of our group and demonstrates how he would finish a judo match — one hand gripping the collar, his forearm to the throat.
'I can fight if I have to fight… I am ready,' says the Newcastle United manager, taking a welcome break from talk of his future for a rare delve into his past.
'When I was a boy I loved Bruce Lee. I did judo aged six to 13. I got a brown belt but had to give up to join Real Madrid's academy. Three years later my brother did the black belt exam, so I did too. You had to win three of five fights. But they killed me, because I no longer had the power in my arms.'
Newcastle boss Rafa Benitez used to be a judo brown belt and has one good scrap left in him
Benitez, laughing, mimics the build of his first opponent, arms outstretched, cheeks puffed, a shape akin to a sumo wrestler.
But there is, you feel, frustration that he never achieved the ultimate rank. The tutorial continues, despite him wearing a brace on his right wrist. He takes hold of the bemused participant. 'My moves now are not as good as they once were,' he says, yet he still looks competent enough to worry those players who wander by this impromptu display.
'But the main thing in judo is the strength here (forearm). You have to hold the opponent all of the time. So, if you don't practise the first fight is fine, but after three or four you have no power left, especially on the floor.'
Benitez has revealed his love of Clint Eastwood films, Bruce Lee, solitaire and Goofy the dog
Perhaps the message is this: Benitez has one good scrap left in him. Mike Ashley beware. But here on the Costa Blanca, beneath the sun and amid the relaxed surrounds of the team's mid-season retreat, we agree that talk of the owner is best left behind on Tyneside. It is a relief for everyone.
Benitez's future is yet to be determined. He will sign a new contract if Ashley agrees to match his ambition. He wants more than an existence of survival, for the Spaniard is a fierce and obsessive competitor. Just ask his wife Maria.
He points to the brace. 'I've had this (repetitive strain injury) six months. It's not just that I'm always working hard on the phone and computer… I've also been on the phone competing against my wife.
She was playing solitaire, I wanted to beat her. She was doing very well and showed me her score. I asked, "What is the record?" I spent one month on that game! But believe me, I beat the record. It's not easy but I beat it.'
Benitez now has his phone in his grasp. The judo dummy is allowed to sit down. He is talking about his daughters Claudia, 20, and Agata, 16, and their influence on him.
'Here's a message from my daughter, one hour ago, telling me about Instagram, saying, "Listen, you don't have a clue. Put this and you'll get more followers". For me, I don't need more followers, but for her it seems important!
'We talk about Ant and Dec and she says, "Oh, they're big Newcastle fans and talk well about you, you need to follow them". So Ant and Dec were easy, Alan Shearer too!
The Spaniard said he played solitaire on his phone for a month to beat his wife's (L) record
'But she told me, "James Bay is a famous singer but also a massive Newcastle fan and says nice things about you, follow him". So I did.' Does Benitez always do as his girls say?
'In the past we had the big television in the lounge with the football on, we'd fight over what to watch. But not any more, I can't win. When one of them is watching the Geordie Shore, I say, "What are you doing?". They love Big Brother, Love Island, all that rubbish. But they always win!'
Benitez the football manager, at 58, sees the value in being around his daughters at their home on the Wirral. 'The way you talk with your daughter, you know how she's thinking, it's very useful. Players are like teenagers, many of them. You have to think, "What would I say to my daughters in this situation?" It really works. So it can be similar, managing daughters and footballers!'
What about their boyfriends? 'I criticise one of them, he's learning Spanish at school but he can't say much. I tell him, "Come on!",' says Benitez, gesturing to clip the lad around the ear. 'But they're fine. They know that at home I'm just normal.'
The Newcastle boss drew comparisons between dealing with his daughters and footballers
On occasion, the father-daughter chat turns to football. 'The little one, she's a real Scouser, she gives me advice about tactics. In the Asterix and Obelix cartoons, the Roman soldiers use the tortoise formation, with shields covering the front, sides and top.
'She tells me we should do the same, with the ball in the middle, going forward and then attacking.'
Given Newcastle's struggles in front of goal this season, she may be on to something.
'But they like football, they follow all my games. They only worry about me when we are losing… "Dad, be careful!" I was unwell (in 2017) and was at home, on the sofa, "Get me this, get me that". But they know I can cope with the pressure.'
Benitez likes to ease the stresses of his day job by watching Clint Eastwood films
So what does Benitez do to ease the stresses? They are, after all, plentiful at Newcastle. 'I watch any cowboy film. You have that channel, TMC, with Clint Eastwood, I like him. A lot of spaghetti Westerns were filmed here in Spain but they are not so good… you can see the Indians still wearing their wristwatches!' Benitez's backroom staff say he pauses films to highlight such errors, his attention to detail extending beyond the football pitch.
Another clue to escapism comes from his phone's screensaver, a picture of a dog. 'To be fair, it's three dogs, I can only fit one on.' Perhaps his daughters can talk him through his phone's picture cropping tools.
'My dogs are Red, the German shepherd, Goofy, a springer spaniel, and Clem, the labrador. Goofy is my wife's dog, he's the boss.'
Does he ever consult his canine comrades on tactics? 'I try in both Spanish and English but they don't understand me,' he says, smiling. But talk of dogs leads Benitez to reveal a life's passion. It comes as no surprise to learn he even trained them for competitions.
'I had a dobermann, he was very good. I was in my twenties and when I was training, I'd be running with him. He was very fast and very strong, but I lived on the fourth floor so I'd take him out for a pee and he'd be pulling me down the stairs!'
Benitez's brother, sister and two uncles are vets, but it was never a career for him. For while he has spent the past half-hour sharing a warm insight into Benitez the man, husband and father, it always comes back to football.
This time, though, he is talking about his playing career, a subject rarely visited. Sometimes that bothers him.
'People say, "You were never playing football", but I was playing football all my life,' he says, before detailing his career, from Real Madrid's youth and reserve teams to second-tier Linares and retirement at 26 because of a knee injury. He made 158 league appearances and scored 17 goals.
He played for Parla and second-tier Linares before retiring at 26 because of a knee injury
'I played as holding midfielder but my best position was sweeper. I could see the game and could talk. I was not the quickest but I had the vision.'
Benitez combined playing with a degree in physical education and represented Spain at the World Student Games in Mexico City in 1979. He is back on his feet as if he's addressing a dead-ball. He takes a few steps back.
'I scored a penalty against Cuba. The keeper was telling me, 'Defender, I will stop the goal', but… boom! But the best goal I ever scored was disallowed — outside the box, outside of my boot, top corner, then it was ruled out for offside!'
Earlier in the day we watched Benitez lead training, including a fine header of his own. He admits that he misses playing, but management was always his destiny.
Benitez returned to Real Madrid to coach their youth teams and begin his life as a manager
'Aged 13, I made notes of my team-mates, giving them marks, noting all the top scorers. At university I was player-coach. I was always football, football, football.' He describes a daily schedule that involved classes followed by a mad dash for the underground and a sprint to Real Madrid's training ground for the evening session.
'At least my warm-up was done by the time I got there!' He returned to Real after retirement in 1986, coaching their youth teams to league and cup success. He eventually assisted the senior side before an offer from Real Valladolid in 1995.
And so began the life of Benitez the manager, a journey that has taken him to the very top but is now at a crossroads. What a travesty it would be for Newcastle were he allowed to head in a different direction.
As he leaves for lunch, Benitez spins. 'Be careful what you write…'
Thinking back to the judo demonstration, you know the consequences.
Published by Associated Newspapers Ltd
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