If Claudio Ranieri and Leicester City have lived a fairytale this season, then Rafa Benitez has endured a sadistic nightmare written by Franz Kafka.
He began by signing a three-year contract to be manager of Real Madrid. His dream job.
“It’s an emotional day, a very special one,” Benitez said, as he radiated pure joy during his unveiling at the Bernabeu on an early June day. “I have worked very hard to achieve success and return home, which was an aim of mine. The cycle is completed but I hope it lasts a long time.”
But it didn’t last a long time. It didn’t last a long time at all.
The players didn’t warm to the unwanted replacement for the beloved Carlo Ancelotti, the fans instantly grew impatient with results that failed to reach the club’s lofty expectations, and Real Madrid president Florentino Perez soon realized that he had a sexier option (in every sense of the term) waiting to distract from the intensifying calls for him to step down.
The situation hit a comically absurd low point in December when Benitez started an ineligible player against a third-division club in the Copa del Rey, getting Real Madrid disqualified from the tournament and drawing international ridicule.
Benitez was sacked in January — seven months and one day after he announced how special it was to return “home.” He left Real Madrid sitting third in La Liga, four points back of then leaders Atletico Madrid, in the Champions League round of 16 after finishing atop their group and going undefeated in the group stage, and, of course, out of the Copa del Rey.
For two months Benitez weighed his options. What does one do when his dream job — a place he calls home — kicks him out after just seven months? Well, the best option he could come up with was Newcastle: a plotless soap opera of a club occupying the Premier League’s relegation zone. But it was March and hopes were high that Rafa Benitez — a man who was in charge of Real Freaking Madrid mere weeks earlier — could save them.
But he didn’t. Just two wins in nine matches doomed Newcastle to their second relegation in seven years.
Meanwhile, Benitez’s replacement at Real Madrid, Zinedine Zidane — a man whose only previous managerial experience was two unremarkable seasons in charge of Real Madrid’s reserve team — reinvigorated the club, leading them to the Champions League final and one point behind La Liga leaders Barcelona with a match to play. And Crisitano Ronaldo made it clear that the improved results were directly related to Benitez’s hasty departure. From ESPN FC:
“I think we feel more appreciated under Zidane,” Ronaldo told UEFA’s official media. “We feel his affection. We know he’s in a period of adaptation, but things have come together very quickly and I’m really happy for him.
“I always admired him as a player, and now as a coach as well, for how behaves, how he deals with the players. He’s a coach who I would like to see stay at Real Madrid.”
Jose Mourinho had a nightmare of a season, getting sacked six months after winning the Premier League title as his team sunk down towards the bottom of the table while playing as if stuck in quicksand. At this point, Rafa Benitez would kill for a season like that. What he has experienced is so far beyond a nightmare that the only possible explanation is that God is using him to prove some kind of cruel point to Satan.
Future generations will whisper the tale of Rafa Benitez’s 2015/16 season while sitting around campfires, and warn that if you say his name three times when the clock strikes midnight, a cursed goatee will magically grow on your face so another unfortunate soul can suffer as he has. Beware.