Rafa Benitez walked out of Stamford Bridge with his head held high. The fact that he left via the back door, leaving his players to take the acclaim of the supporters at the final whistle of the final game, doesn’t and shouldn’t alter anything. To do otherwise might have been a bit awkward. He was never wanted. He knew it, accepted it, and went about his business with a quiet dignity. He delivered the trophy they now expect as a minimum requirement, though it was not the one they wanted, and the coveted Champions League berth which trumps even that. Meanwhile, down in Madrid a turbulent era was ending amid customary histrionics and posturing, and more than a little bitterness. Jose Mourinho engineered his departure from the Bernabeu in a graceless and insulting manner. There was no silverware. He too will not be missed. He’s not so special anymore, so he’s heading back to where he feels loved, to the open arms of the Chelsea faithful. Perhaps they deserve each other.
But hang on, there must be some confusion. Mourinho’s demi-god status in West London owes everything to his having clinched a first league title for the club after a fifty year hiatus, then swiftly following it up with another. His strutting, pouting, cocksure manner not only disturbed the established order but detonated it. Well, at least until Manchester United and the redoubtable Sir Alex Ferguson reasserted. That’s the Portuguese in a nutshell; he puts his own personal stamp on all he does, there can be no disclaiming his ownership. Yet the real reason for Chelsea’s success is the bottomless pockets of their silent billionaire Roman Abramovich. Without him there would have been no Mourinho, nor any of the other top coaches who subsequently sustained the glory rush. Including Benitez. Yes, that was his appointment as well, the hated, vilified former Liverpool boss who received only the most grudging of credit before he slinked away unseen.
Could the ire from the stands, a constant backdrop to the tidy job done by a man who might have an occasional tendency to rub people up the wrong way but is more bank clerk to Mourinho’s gangster, be interpreted as disillusionment with their oligarch? Not so you’d notice. They couldn’t afford to let him walk away. So the Spaniard got it in the neck, and it didn’t matter that he began moulding a more coherent team, loosening that reliance on the old guard and extracting the best within the unit from players who previously had been merrily ploughing their own furrows. That he did so with that ‘interim’ tag worn like a millstone, knowing that whatever progress he conjured up he would never personally reap the benefits. Abramovich, businessman that he is, might have detected a creeping ambivalence. So his next appointment would have to repair bonds, and there’s only one man who fits the bill. Except that, didn’t it end in tears last time, and doesn’t it always once the ego has landed?
Blame, recrimination, self-justification, relief. Sound familiar? Not September 2007 but last week, in the Spanish capital. Mourinho, banished from the touchline, watched as his Real Madrid lost the Copa Del Rey final to city rivals Atletico, ignominy compounded by a failure to collect his runners-up medal, widely perceived as an act of disrespect to the King and unworthy of the traditions of a historic institution. Then he abused the referee in the car park afterwards. There would be scant sympathy from a mishandled dressing room largely pleased to see the back of him. Iker Cassilas for one, the experienced goalkeeper, a legend to the masses, dropped and ex-communicated for his failure to fall under the spell, Sergio Ramos likewise. Barcelona have had their problems but this soap opera of a career means that the travails of Tito Vilanova, the man he once poked in the eye in one of his more darkly farcical moments, have managed to evade searching scrutiny. Not surprising, since the Catalans just got on with winning the La Liga crown back as Mourinho outrageously provoked the world and his wife.
Winning, yes. That got sacrificed in the sideshow. It used to be why they were queuing up to secure his services. And of course his ability to make players run through brick walls for him. That reputation has taken a bit of a pounding. Maybe there’s only so far you can go if that’s all you’ve got. There never was any tactical subtlety, variety or sophistication. Abramovich wanted to be entertained; Real Madrid wanted the Champions League in the style of their great rivals. Both were ultimately disappointed. The more the aura fades or the magic dies, the greater the hullabaloo, the more crass and distasteful. The media love him, he’s box office, there’s a story every time he opens his mouth, sometimes when he doesn’t. But he’s running out of friends. Sir Alex failed to recommend him as his successor at Old Trafford, a role he was long thought to covet. You have to ask why. No, you probably don’t need to.
They say you should never go back. Football is littered with such sentimental decisions repented at leisure. We shall see. Most of us are guilty of eulogising ‘the Special One’, blinded by the charisma and bombast, overlooking the disgraceful nature of much of his behaviour. Because they see him as one of them, and he reciprocates in often cringingly sycophantic fashion, he and the Chelsea fans have become each other’s emotional crutch. In times of trouble they only have eyes for one another. Mockingly, Mourinho likes to muse how he bequeathed Benitez a legacy at Inter Milan which was blundered away. How ironic then that he should now inherit Rafa’s work. We already hear rumours that certain players are not rated, that more huge investments will be necessary, that favourites are relishing the return of their preferential positions. This is a club that thrives on creative tension. Even its owner realises, however, that this is not sustainable in perpetuity.
It is hard to imagine Mourinho humbly eschewing the limelight as Benitez did so classily on Sunday. No broadside, no parting shot, no getting it all off his chest when it might have been burning him inside. He had been treated so shabbily, yet to those unaffected by the passions swirling around it was clear that the fruits of his diligent labour were there for all to see. They did not require a trumpet fanfare. He took an opportunity to showcase his coaching and managerial instincts and emerged with his stock having risen immeasurably. Why should he care what happens to Chelsea now? It was a marriage of convenience; regrets are better saved for a tempestuous affair. Speaking of which, one such coupling is about to be rekindled. They really can’t help themselves. Benitez will certainly walk into another job, smiling wryly as he goes.