Speaking in an exclusive interview with Marca, Dalian Professional head coach Rafa Benitez discusses life in China, his short spell at Real Madrid and Liverpool versus Atlético Madrid in the Champions League.
How is the Coronavirus being dealt with?
We have to control everything daily – our temperature, washing our hands, we’re training normally because we don’t have any sick players. Madness was created and it’s hard to control that. We’ve come to Marbella now, and it’s been almost a month.
Your club are controlled by Wanda, who are stopping their investment in football. How is that affecting you?
They’re thinking about whether or not they want to continue because of changes in the wage regulations and it’s essential for Dalian’s growth.
Doesn’t it frustrate you that you can’t sign who you want?
I come from a school of teaching, of training. I’ve always liked it, to teach when you train. Not only making players repeat things, but also explaining why we do the things we do so players’ knowledge grows. We have a responsibility that goes beyond the first team and you have to adapt to what you have.
Do you feel like more of a teacher than a coach?
Of course. I’m doing a lot of the things that I did with Castilla (Real Madrid B). People wonder why Chinese football doesn’t grow quickly, but it’s because kids start playing at 13, which is very late.
You signed for two and a half years in China. Aren’t you worried about falling behind in Europe?
Not at all. I have a good staff here and we’re very up to date. We watch games from other leagues, we look for players and the only difference is that you’re not in the papers every day.
How many players are in your database?
About 17,000. Saying that sounds great but only between 500 and 1,000 are of interest either now or in the future.
You still have a reputation in England and you can return at any time.
Yes, but I’m not thinking about that now. We want to develop things in China. We had offers from other players before we came here, but they didn’t offer us what we were looking for. We could have gone somewhere else.
Did you have offers from Spain?
There too. There was a lot of money on the table from a lot of well-paid leagues, but from teams who couldn’t compete or win. But here, as well as a good contract, I have a project where winning titles isn’t demanded, but there’s a need for us to improve things and leave a legacy behind, which we can do.
Is it possible that we’ll see you in La Liga again?
The big leagues always attract me. The important thing is that people know we’re up to date with everything. My team and I never stop.
How do you see your relationship with Real Madrid?
I went a long time without talking about the club. I thought I should say something but it seemed like I couldn’t say what I thought. So I don’t talk about them and I only focus on the future, which for now is with Dalian Professional.
There are still some signs of Benitez at Madrid: Casemiro, Lucas Vazquez…
We were able to sign Lucas, Casemiro and [Mateo] Kovacic and two of them are still there at a good level, but I don’t want to talk about it. They let me work for six months but then, for whatever reason, we didn’t interest them anymore. I don’t want to say anymore.
A lot of things have been said about you. Is it true that you tried to teach Cristiano Ronaldo how to take freekicks?
It’s a lie. At no time did I do that. The only time we discussed free-kicks was in Australia. I told him we analysed how he took them at Manchester United. At no time did I tell him how to take them, nor did I tell [Luka] Modric to stop passing with the outside of his foot.
So there was nothing with the Croatian either?
All I told him was that when there’s a simple pass with the inside of the foot, he had to use the inside of his foot because it’s easier for his teammate. I also used the outside of my foot when I was a player, but for 10-15 metre passes. But it’s easy to spread lies.
Let’s look at another one of your clubs, Liverpool. What does this current side have that yours didn’t?
We had no money. Our transfer budget in my last year was €17m, and you can’t compete with that. We had tried to sell and buy, it was the only way to close in on our rivals. This team have had two or three years of very good investment and a lot of successful signings. As well as that, there’s a coach whose opinion is valued by the owners.
What will happen at Anfield after Atlético Madrid’s 1-0 win in Spain?
Liverpool will try to be on top from the first minute. If the chances come, there’ll be pressure. But if Atleti can stay calm, as they have so many times, and get through the early stages, then they can cause problems. Logically, I’ve been with Liverpool and I’d like them to win. My family are there, I still love the city, but my father was an Atlético Madrid fan, so I don’t want to say I’m on one side or the other. I can only offer a professional analysis.