Rafa’s Return to the Premier League: New Chelsea manager puts fandom in a hard spot

By John Dutton

My mate Jason is a Chelsea fan. He runs my local pub and when I watched the Chelsea vs. Liverpool match there two weeks ago he made a joke with my 9-year-old son: “Do you know where Rafa [Benitez] is now?” he asked. “Working in a restaurant somewhere in Spain,” was the answer. Har, har, har.

But who’s laughing now? Rafael Benítez has been appointed interim Chelsea manager until the end of the season and Jason just admitted that his head is about to explode trying to come to terms with the nightmare. He and a lot of other Chelsea fans simply refer to Rafa as the FSW (Fat Spanish Waiter), but now there he is, taking the reins at Stamford Bridge.

Rafa in happier times.
[Photo credit: thesportreview / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA]

I’m a big fan of Rafa (I think Hicks and Gillett were wrong to part ways with him after refusing to back him in the transfer market), but this situation highlights the contradictions that modern soccer fans sometimes find themselves facing. Fernando Torres and Michael Owen show up at Anfield wearing the shirts of the enemies; Robin Van Persie wears Manchester United red against his red-kitted former team mates at Arsenal; one day Chelsea might find itself playing against Jose Mourinho at Old Trafford. For now Blues fans have their own manager to worry about. This is a man who famously disparaged the club’s fans for waving “stupid plastic flags” in an effort to create an ersatz atmosphere at the Bridge.

Fans like to rib each other and there’s nothing wrong with a bit of playful banter, but Jason has a habit of singing borderline racist songs about Scousers whenever Liverpool play Chelsea. He also used to perform an unpalatable ditty that focused on Torres’s sexual preferences, a nasty number that had to be hastily reworded once El Nino joined the Blues. Stalin couldn’t have whitewashed (bluewashed?) history any better.

The archetypal modern-day football fan?

But Benítez’s appointment has proved to be one role-reversal too many for Jason, who revealed to me that he plans to write a letter to the Chelsea upper management expressing his continued support for the team while wishing the worst for the manager and those directly above him. Bizarrely, he has absolved Roman Abramovich of all blame in this saga, based on the fact that he didn’t speak directly to the Spaniard, although it’s clear that if ever there was a meddling football club owner, it’s Abramovich. Jason seems to represent the majority view and a Facebook page has even been created called Get Benitez out of Chelsea ASAP, with one poster expressing the opinion that the fans might even turn on Torres because of his connections with Rafa, as well as commenting, “I have been a supporter since the late 80s and this is probably the lowest day as a chelsea [sic] fan, to be ridiculed by fans of every other team for signing the fat spanish waiter, i [sic] think the chelsea fans will boo him on Sunday.” See – Chelsea might win some trophies under Benítez, but it’s not worth the ridicule. Jason won’t be the only fan who can give out the banter, but can’t take it when it’s given back.

What might Rafa’s new job mean for LFC fans? Returning heroes rarely do well at Anfield. Ever since Kevin Keegan’s Hamburg were thrashed 6-0 in the European Super Cup on a foggy December night in 1977, I can’t think of a single occasion when a returning star player or manager has put one over on the Reds. Even when King Kenny brought his league-leading Blackburn side to Anfield for the last game of the 1994-95 EPL season Liverpool came from behind to win, even though the result almost handed the crown to Ferguson’s United (who tripped up themselves against West Ham and only finished second). Torres has hit goodness knows how many shots into the stands against Liverpool since leaving for Chelsea, and Michael Owen also flattered to deceive in a Red Devils shirt.

There’s an excellent chance that the Liverpool fans will be happier to see Rafa in an Anfield dugout this coming April 20th than his own team’s supporters. And we can be guardedly optimistic that the historic trend will continue, with the former hero departing with nothing to show but a warm round of applause from the Kop at the final whistle. And Jason spitting out his beer in disgust.

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