Rafa Benitez stands on the balcony of his suite at The Castle and surveys Heishi Reef Bay. The luxury hotel overlooks the Yellow Sea and the 59-year-old cuts an incongruous figure. He is European football royalty in exile, trapped in the gilded jail of the Chinese Super League.
Even for someone used to travelling the world and staying in luxury hotels, The Castle is an eye-opener. “Come, come look at this,” Benitez says, gesturing towards the bathroom. He stands by the door. “Go on, go in.” The room is dark. “Go in. Over there.” There is real excitement in his voice.
He points towards the toilet bowl. “Yes, there. Sit on it.”
He fills the doorway, gesturing for his guest to advance. It is a surreal situation. Then the reason becomes clear. Four steps away from the privy, the lid of the toilet automatically flips up and the porcelain bowl lights up, illuminating the room.
“It senses your presence,” he says, laughing. “And the seat is heated. But wait.” At last he turns the main light on and moves closer to point out the toilet’s features. “It has a remote control, like a TV.” He takes the gadget from its holder on the wall. It is very similar to a television’s channel flicker. “You can change the heat, wash yourself with jets of water and even give yourself a blow dry!” He shakes his head. “Amazing.”
China is a curious adventure for Benitez, a man of great enthusiasm and warmth despite his austere reputation. The Spaniard has been manager of Dalian Yifang since June. It has been assumed by many people that he is in semi-retirement in this football backwater. After all, this is a man who has a hugely impressive resume. He won La Liga twice and the UEFA Cup while managing Valencia and the Champions League and FA Cup with Liverpool. In a short spell at Chelsea he delivered the Europa League and he secured the Copa Italia for Napoli. In between he had stints at Inter Milan and Real Madrid and most recently Benitez has been in charge of Newcastle United. He took the overmatched squad at St James’ Park into the Premier League and kept them there for two seasons.
So why is a manager of international renown stuck in provincial north-east China? Cynics would say there is a simple answer: cash.
It certainly is a factor. Benitez’s contract is worth £25 million – net – over the course of two years. Without a mindboggling offer he would not have come to Dalian. “Yes, the money is good,” he admits with a smile. Yet it is more complex than that.
By the end of last season, Benitez had realised that there was no future on Tyneside. He needed a new job. He was also sick of struggling at the bottom of the Premier League. What he wanted more than any riches was the opportunity to win silverware.
“When I realised that Newcastle were not investing to progress and there were no options with the top sides to compete for trophies, we received two offers from China,” he said. “There were others from Spain and Italy but they were the same – the ambition was to stay in the middle of the table.”
Most managers would have sat tight and waited for a better role to come up. Benitez is different. He has an almost pathological hatred of being out of work. It has, aside from his success, been one of the defining features of his career. Too often he has taken the wrong job just to keep working. Good manager, bad choices.
At Inter, Real and Newcastle the negative factors outweighed the positives and disappointment was inevitable. The prospects in Dalian do not look much more enticing.
Is he enjoying life in the Chinese Super League? “It’s complicated,” he says. Even the simple things are not straightforward. The team are based at a massive 203-acre sports campus half an hour’s drive from central Dalian. The centrepiece is a 60,000 stadium that sits alongside an 18,000-seat indoor arena, a 9,500-capacity tennis venue and a baseball ground that can hold 3,000 people.
The football club is in the process of building a new facility modelled on Chelsea’s Cobham complex. It will be finished in December but for now Benitez and his squad are preparing for games on the baseball diamond.
Superficially, training is the same as at any club. The players – mainly Chinese but with four expensive foreign imports – lark about and the staff set up the session with boisterous humour while they await the boss in the late October sunshine. Benitez arrives. He is smiling and exuding positivity but the mood among the group turns serious.
It is 10.30 in the morning but the manager has already spent more than two hours preparing with his staff. “We are trying to do things in a professional way, in exactly the same way we did things in England,” Benitez says. “We look at the players, who is injured and who is fit. Then we organise the training sessions. The big difference here is you need translators for everything.”
It slows things down. “When we were in Italy, Spain and England, it was easy because we can speak Italian, English and Spanish.
“It is not just the language. You have to communicate to the translator what you want to say and then they have to explain it to the players in the way you want to say it. If you shout, they have to shout. If you’re angry, they have to be angry. It’s not easy.” The young Chinese interpreter, standing listening, gives a sheepish smile.
Benitez is multilingual. He switches languages frequently, sometimes unconsciously. At the dinner table he begins a story in Spanish and chatters away for almost a minute before realising that his companion is not following the conversation. “Oh, sorry,” he says. “English. I forget. The joke is not so funny in English.” It is.
He is already working on developing his basic Mandarin. “You need to know the easiest words you can use during games because otherwise you need the translator and the fourth official does not allow the translator to stay for too long in the technical area,” he says. “Sometimes you are on your own and you have to shout something and explain something.”
With that he rattles off a series of phrases. A passing waiter turns in surprise, probably wondering why anyone would tell him to “pick up his man.”
Language is only part of the problem. Footballers in Europe and South America have an instinctive grasp of the nuances of the game, a shorthand that transcends the spoken word. The Chinese players who comprise the majority of the squad do not have this hinterland of knowledge. “They don’t play football in China between six and 10 years old,” Benitez says. “In Europe and South America we play in the street and there are organised competitions for six year-olds. You start early and you have the passion. You have the desire to do well, the motivation and little by little you learn the technique. The right age to start learning football properly is between eight and ten years but everybody’s playing before that in the football countries. Here it is different.
“I put it this way: If you want to be good at ping-pong, come to China. Everybody plays. It is not the same for football.”
That is evident at training. The standard is way below Premier League level. Most of the players would not make the grade in League Two, the fourth tier of English football. Benitez wastes a lot of time going over the basics. He spends 20 minutes after the session ends explaining to the goalkeepers – who have to be Chinese and cannot be foreigners – how to dive and where their arms should be. They are grateful and leave saying, “Thank you Mister.” He shows no hint of exasperation.
Next Benitez gathers together some Spanish coaches he has brought over from La Liga clubs to help develop a youth system. This group are working with six year-olds. They are at the start of their careers and clearly in awe of having a Champions League winner overseeing their work. He puts them at ease and is positive about how well they are performing. They beam with pride.
People like Benitez. Well, most people. Like all the best managers he is ruthless in his professional life but his default setting in private is charming. He does not flatter players. “In England, it is all about this arm-round-the-shoulder stuff,” he says with a hint of disdain. “I talk to them and explain things that can help them. I’m am more than twice their age. I am not their friend. I am their boss. But I want to help them.”
He is recognised frequently in The Castle. “Dalian is a football town,” he says with approval. At the restaurant’s buffet he is approached three times as he puts food on to his plate. One young couple ask for photos and dither while taking a dozen or more shots. They are keen to make sure they look good in their brush with celebrity. It takes a little time to get things right but Benitez chats away to them even though the situation could easily have strayed into uncomfortable territory.
The maitre d’hotel hovers around his table a bit too much, drawn by his guest’s glamour. “Is he going to leave us alone?” Benitez says rhetorically after the man asks if everything is OK for the fourth time. “I don’t eat down here very often,” he admits. “I mostly eat in the room. Paco [de Miguel Moreno, his assistant] is a good cook. He does nice tapas.” It is just as well someone is adept in the kitchen. Benitez’s fridge contains merely bottled water. His cupboards have only Spanish and English crisp-style snacks, although the packets are unopened.
He is used to living in hotels. The family have stayed settled on the Wirral, residents since he joined Liverpool 15 years ago. His wife, who is from northern Spain, loves it there. His daughters grew up as Merseysiders and Benitez has not allowed his itinerant working life to disrupt their upbringing with constant moves. During his two years in Napoli he lived in a hotel almost adjacent to the training ground in a dangerous part of Naples. When he is working he barely notices his environment. He is always working.
“Is Dalian a nice city?” He is genuinely pleased when the answer is yes. “All I see is the route from here to training and the airport.”
The head waiter returns shortly after with a bubbling cauldron of vegetable stew and places it on the table. It is followed by slivers of uncooked Kobe beef and bowls containing raw eggs. Another waiter explains that the meat should be dunked in the boiling broth and then dipped in the mixed yolk and albumen. “The egg is the sauce, no salmonella. It is a special egg,” the maitre d’ advises. Benitez samples the dish and makes approving noises, even taking a photograph on his phone to send to his wife.
“Did you order that?” Benitez asks when the staff are gone. The answer is negative. He nods. “You need to know about the culture and get used to the customs,” he says. “You have dinners with the bosses and they like to toast with alcohol. It depends how high you raise the cup whether you have more respect or not.” He mimes the various degrees of esteem.
“Normally they want you to drink everything in the cup. It is dangerous. You start drinking, toast, toast, toast… and you never know how you’re fixed.” He frowns. Unlike some of his English managerial counterparts he does not enjoy boozing. “I don’t like to drink so I sip a little bit to be polite.”
One of the criticisms that has dogged Benitez has been his reputation for being a disrespectful employee. That image was cemented during his time at Anfield when he was embroiled in a civil war with the club’s owners, George Gillett and Tom Hicks. The American pair nearly drove Liverpool to bankruptcy and the manager publicly sided with the supporters protesting against the boardroom chaos. During his time at Newcastle, the Spaniard was vocal in his criticism of the way Mike Ashley ran things at St James’ Park. In each case the problems began when promises made in the boardroom were not kept. When parameters are defined and maintained – as they were at Chelsea – Benitez does not make a fuss.
“I don’t want to complain too much but the reality is that football is changing and we went to places where the owners were expecting too much without supporting us and making an effort [financially],” he says. “Afterwards, people said, ‘he was correct because he was trying to defend the interests of the club.’ It was not just about the fans. It was not taking the side of the fans. It was taking the side of the club. I try to do things the right way.”
He does retain an affinity to supporters. Scarves from the Liverpool and Newcastle Chinese supporters clubs sit on his table in an office that otherwise has no memorabilia. It feels like he is starting from scratch.
On his desk is a huge computer screen where he goes through his plans to rebuild the club. Flow charts assign responsibilities to everyone in the organisation from the president down to the academy employees. This is the manager as a bureaucrat, putting together a corporate structure that will function beyond Benitez’s time in China.
“We know we will not be here forever so it has to be sustainable after we are gone,” he says. He uses ‘we’ a lot. This is a collective, not an individual profession.
“We want to get to the situation where there are 28 Chinese staff and 21 foreign people,” he says as a slide appears on his computer screen. “We are talking about coaches and translators, kitmen and medical staff.
“For example you see here in the under-19 team we have a Chinese coach, an assistant but also we want to bring in a Spanish coach and a fitness coach that will help with the workload. We have a couple of Chinese and a couple of Spanish on all the staffs. We have the same methodology with all the teams.”
In Europe, recruiting coaches is simple by comparison. “Here you need to coach the coaches,” Benitez says. “Everything that is in place in Europe, from facilities to the players, needs to be created here.”
Dalian are a long way behind the top Chinese clubs like Guangzhou Evergrande – who have won seven of the past eight titles – and Shanghai SIPG. They are just a decade old and were promoted to the top flight two years ago. The team is backed by Wanda, the multinational conglomerate, which made it possible for a manager of Benitez’s status to be drawn to the club. He came to the conclusion that if he could not find somewhere to win, then he needed to find somewhere to build.
“You have to be open minded,” he says. “You have to be patient and you need to understand that it’s a process. We have come here trying to develop a project that will be like a legacy. So we want to be sure that the club [owners] understand what we want to do.”
The lack of understanding is sometimes wearing. An official enters the office and suggests a player to buy. “You will not know him,” the man says. Patiently, Benitez gets his recruitment list for the position on his computer screen and points out the individual. He has been watched four times by scouts that the manager trusts. Even on the inside it is hard to grasp the level of effort put into the job by Benitez and the network of knowledge that he can call upon after more than 30 years as a coach.
Every night, back at The Castle, he pores over data on players, spends hours on the phone to agents and tries to work out ways to outwit opponents. Does he ever get bored with football? He looks shocked, as if it is a question he has never considered. “No, no… not really,” he says. “Every game is something new. It’s a challenge. There are some games that are almost impossible to win but it’s a challenge. I try to prepare properly and analyse everything. Every single game, every single season, every new club is a challenge. When I talk with my wife – it’s hard with the time difference – she phones me and says ‘you’re always busy.’ I’m always in meetings. I’m lucky enough to have my staff working really hard. We try to prepare everything to control everything, so if a problem happens we have solutions. We are not bored because we are competitive and want to win. We want to build something so we are excited every day.”
President Xi Jinping is a football fan but, even more importantly, China’s leader is aware of the game’s potential in the propagation of ‘soft power.’ The plan is to host the World Cup in 2030 and make the national team competitive. The input of foreign managers will be crucial if they are to achieve that aim. Benitez’s immediate ambitions are less grandiose. The season ends in December and expectations are muted.
“The target now is to finish in the top 10, top eight,” he says. “Next year we will try to finish in the top six. That does not mean we will not try to finish in the top four but we know we can only improve things so far.”
That is clear when the team travel to play Shanghai SIPG. “It will be a difficult game,” Benitez says. “We must try to find a solution. We cannot afford to make mistakes.”
There are barely 15,000 people in the vast stadium on a clammy Sunday night, with one isolated block of Dalian supporters doing their best to outsing the choreographed local fans, who wave huge flags and cheer in regimented unison. Benitez’s team struggle from the start. Solutions are in short supply and mistakes aplenty. It does not need an interpreter to convey the manager’s dismay and frustration on the sidelines. The game ends in a 3-0 defeat with Oscar, a Brazilian he once managed at Chelsea, scoring the final goal. It feels like a long way from home.
The manager is realistic. Planning for the future is one thing but confidence is built on success. “If you are winning with the first team everybody will listen to you,” he says. “If you are not, you say, ‘but we are building something,’ and they say ‘but you’re losing.’” Back in Dalian, Benitez arrives for training. Two fans are waiting for him with scarfs and books to autograph. He stops and spends a few minutes with them, signing translated versions of his published work. “Look, look,” he says, holding up a book. It is called ‘Champions League Dreams’ and features a stern Benitez staring out from the cover against a backdrop of Anfield. “Remember?” He laughs with pleasure.
And in he goes to the offices, starting again at the bottom on one of football’s frontiers. It does not matter. He might be in exile but he has not stopped dreaming.
All photographs Getty Images