Monday, November 26, 2007

Rafa On Outs at Liverpool: Culture Clash with American Owners

The English press is having a field day with Rafa Benitez’s flap with Liverpool’s American co-owners George Gillett Jr. and Tom Hicks, predicting that the Anfield boss won’t last the season.

The flap is over Benitez’s angst over the owners’ insistence that player transfers be handled through chief executive Rick Parry. Benitez bristled at that notion as he tried to lock up Javier Mascherano to a long-term deal with the Reds, and pursued Racing Santander’s Garay, a defender. Liverpool is six points off the pace in the Premiership with a game in hand.

This has disaster written all over it. Rafa has won a Champions League and an FA Cup at Liverpool, and finished second in Europe last year in an unlikely run at a second title. He’s done it primarily with an array of Spanish and French imports, making Anfield one of the true melting pots of English football. Rafa’s style isn’t always the most amicable, but it’s difficult to argue with the results. That’s definitely stoking his fire as he tangles with Liverpool’s new American owners over players.

And there’s the rub. Rafa has said publicly that the American brass aren’t familiar with the way things are done during the transfer windows, and that they should essentially step aside until they learn the ropes.

The conflict comes on the American end. Culturally, American sports separate their on-field coaches from the front office. True it’s done to some degree in football, but with winning comes some cache. If you’re a manager of a big club, you get to buy the players. Gillett and Hicks are used to a general manager who buys the players, and a coach who coaches them on the field. Hicks lashed out at Benitez, telling him to “quit talking” and worry about coaching. The co-owners have said they’ll see him in mid-December to talk about transfers.

The rub is, Rafa may bolt before then--or be asked to leave. Could Liverpool survive this kind of turmoil? Doubtful any club in contention would thrive in a mid-stream coaching change.

The odd thing is that Gillett and Hicks have already opened their wallets and given Rafa the green to bring in Ryan Babel, Fernando Torres and Benayoun. Liverpool had a torrid start to the English season and looked like it would run away from the pack, but it has cooled considerably. Its balky showing in the Champions League thus far isn’t helping Rafa’s case for more power internally. Liverpool takes on F.C. Porto Wednesday in the Champions League when a loss essentially ends their bid for a third appearance in the finals in four campaigns. Could it end Rafa’s reign at Anfield?

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