There’s a reason why Rafa Benitez’s face still adorns banners in the Kop. Winning a European Cup will do that for you at Liverpool.
And it’s not just that he won the Champions League, it’s how he won the Champions League. That 2004/05 run that culminated in the Miracle of Istanbul elicits so many incredible memories that continue to live long in the consciousness of Liverpool fans everywhere. There was the lovely cushioned header into the path of Gerrard against Olympiacos: Oh you beauty! There was the tactical masterclass against Juventus. Luis Garcia’s “Ghost Goal.” And of course, Istanbul.
I can still see Jerzy Dudek coming several feet off his line to make that last, decisive penalty save.
And it wasn’t just how he won the Champions League, but the circumstances surrounding it. Liverpool, having served their 6-year ban following the tragic events of Heysel, and having fallen off their English perch in the 90s, were a shadow of their former European conquering selves. Gerard Houllier had made Liverpool relevant on the European scene in 2001, seeing off Barcelona en route to the UEFA Cup (now the Europa League), but it was still a second-tier competition.
When 2004/05 kicked off, with Rafa now at the helm, it had been more than two decades since the Reds had last been crowned European Champions. Those four glories seemed more like a flash-in-the-pan, than a Fowler-given right. Were Liverpool a “big club” in the sense of a Real Madrid or Bayern Munich? Or more like Ajax, a club that had revolutionized football in decades past, but could not compete with the modern financial restraints of the game? In 2004, a reasonable argument could be made for the latter.
Included in those circumstances was the squad that Rafa inherited. This was not a Champions League winning side, to say the least. Their 58 league points and 5th placed finish—behind Everton, mind you—was all the evidence you needed of their inherent flaws.
And yet, through tactical nous, grit, determination, and a heaping portion of luck, Liverpool were once again European Champions.
Rafa was just getting started. Each season he chopped and changed. Wheeled and dealed. Xabi Alonso. Fernando Torres. Dirk Kuyt. Daniel Agger. Javier Mascherano. Peter Crouch. Luis Garcia. All Rafa signings. He build a squad that wasn’t just capable of an odd cup upset, but a squad that deserved to be fighting for the top honors in England and in Europe.
He followed up his Champions League triumph by winning the UEFA Super Cup, earning 82 points in the league, and lifting the FA Cup to top it off.
A year later, he guided Liverpool back to the Champions League final, but this time unable to recreate the same magic against AC Milan. And the season after that, they fell just short in the semifinals, losing to Chelsea after extra time.
In 2008/09, he gave us a true title challenge: pushing Manchester United, but ultimately coming up short, despite our best Premier League season up until that point. That finish, 86 points, would not be eclipsed until last year’s 97-point campaign.
Unfortunately, by 2008, the seeds of his—and Liverpool’s—downfall were already sown. The disastrous reign of Hicks & Gillett had begun. The club was rotting from the top down, and the results on the pitch started showing in 2009/10. Even a manager as great as Rafa could do little to stem the tide.
But on his 60th birthday, we should remember the good times. And there were plenty.
He awoke a sleeping European giant. Without his efforts in the mid-to-late 2000s, Liverpool could very well still be seen as just another Ajax: a footballing relic of the past. He helped bring the Reds into the modern era, and made it easier for his predecessors—especially Jurgen Klopp—to sell the idea of once again rousing the European giant that is Liverpool to potential players. And today? That giant is no longer sleeping.
Happy birthday, Rafa. Thanks again for all the great memories.