"Look, ma, top of the world." There is a taste of Jimmy Cagney about the end of Rafael Benitez. He had just led Internazionale to their fifth trophy of 2010 and the one that to a Martian would sound the most prestigious – the Club World Cup. A few days later, the Inter president, Massimo Moratti, who had told reporters that he would rate his club's season as "10 out of 10" if they won the trophy in the desert heat of Abu Dhabi, has all but sacked him.
Indeed, it was suggested last night that Benitez and his agent are already in talks with the club negotiating the end of his contract. Agent Manuel Garcia Quilon was quoted as saying: "We are talking about it, but I cannot say anything more". Quilon met with the Inter vice-president, Rinaldo Ghelfi, and the technical director, Marco Branca, as well as the club lawyer, Angelo Capellini. "We are neither optimistic nor pessimistic," Quilon added. "We will meet again to talk more."
Ostensibly, it would be a decision that makes the dismissals of Chris Hughton and Sam Allardyce at Newcastle and Blackburn seem almost logical but the Club World Cup is such a flawed concept – like having a cricket world cup that involved Finland and Chile playing Australia – that even the hundred or so supporters who greeted Benitez's team at Malpensa Airport did not imagine they were hailing the conquerors of the known world.
Inter had, after all, become world champions by beating Seongnam Ilhwa of South Korea and then disposing of TP Mazembe of the Congo. They were seventh in Serie A, 13 points adrift of Milan, and according to the city's daily paper, La Stampa, Benitez was "walking with a pistol to his head".
Despite the fact they had transported 3,000 flags and 8,000 pieces of coloured card – for use in pre-match choreography – to the Arabian Gulf, Abu Dhabi did not compare to the Bernabeu in May when Jose Mourinho became the first manager of Inter since Helenio Herrera in 1965 to take Italy's premier club to Europe's premier trophy.
Mourinho's thought patterns must be similar to those that overtook Don Revie when hearing that Brian Clough had been fired by Leeds after 44 days, although it is unlikely the two enemies will be appearing on Rai Uno to debate the matter – as Revie and Clough did on Yorkshire Television. But the Christmas wine in Madrid would have tasted very sweet.
Of course, it was folly to follow Mourinho (Benitez, bizarrely, had all images of Mourinho removed from the Inter training ground after taking over) just as it was folly to follow Revie and it will be to follow Sir Alex Ferguson. It was especially risky since Benitez was at least third choice for the job.
Moreover, Benitez has taken no kind of break since his dismissal from Liverpool, a job which, disgracefully for a man who had taken the club to two European Cup finals, he was told he had lost by text message.
He needed time away from football – difficult for a man with almost no interests outside the game – if only to sketch out the rest of his career. His final season at Anfield had the overpowering sense of staleness – the failure to keep Xabi Alonso, the signing of Alberto Aquilani, exhausted tactics, tired results. His head was empty; it did not need to be filled with Moratti's barked orders.
Benitez is no politician. His hugely successful time at Valencia ended in a tearful resignation speech laced with venom at directors who had refused to authorise the kind of spending he believed necessary to bring the European Cup to the Mestalla.
He may have won La Liga twice, he may have organised Valencia to withstand Didier Drogba in the Uefa Cup final but his most famous line – "I asked for a sofa and they bought me a lampshade" – was indicative of a man who thought he was entitled to be backed with plenty of hard cash and reacted with the petulance of a Kevin Keegan if it was refused.
He did not, as Roy Hodgson had done at San Siro, cultivate Moratti as a friend. At Anfield he forged an alliance with Tom Hicks but it was one of convenience, based on a mutual dislike of the chief executive, Rick Parry. In his final interview before he left Anfield, Benitez complained to the Spanish journalist, Guillem Balague, that if only he had been allowed to sign Daniel Alves from Barcelona and Gareth Barry, Liverpool's season might not have disintegrated.
At San Siro, he had expected to be able to bring in Giuseppe Sculli, and forge a reunion with the man Diego Maradona reckons the best holding midfielder in the world, Javier Mascherano. He got neither and Moratti compounded matters by deciding to pass on Sao Paulo's Hernandes, who is one of the chief reasons why Lazio are pressing Milan at the top of Serie A. Lost in a blizzard of injuries, unable to motivate a side that had won everything, Benitez's regime fell apart with surprising speed.
As Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher will testify, Benitez is not a people person – at Valencia he once fell out with Kily Gonzalez over whether you could eat ice cream at a pre-match meal. But he is a supremely careful tactician, Revie-like in the detail he would go into.
He once told Balague that at Melwood he would try to anticipate every situation his Liverpool team might experience on the pitch. "He works on the team, the shape and the tactics every single day," his then captain, Gerrard said of him two years ago. "He is really keen on working on the smallest details so every training session is very long." Benitez liked to spend time with individuals, although Hodgson has used a more collective approach.
At Inter, they complained that they saw far less of the ball than under Mourinho and many thought that if it was true that Benitez worked hard anticipating tactics, how did he not foresee that Gareth Bale would rip Maicon apart in their recent Champions League game at Tottenham, unless his full-back was given protection?
This morning, Benitez is on the Wirral, where he was probably happiest with his dog and cat and games of chess. The world champion with a plastic crown needs time away from the game whose tactics have consumed him since he was a child. His career is in check but it is not yet mate.Reuse content