Why, exactly, is Chelsea's new manager such a divisive figure among football fans?
In some ways, Rafael Benítez is everything that's wrong with the world.
Not him personally, you understand. Even if you loathe Chelsea's new manager, and statistically a fair few of you will, he's at best a tiny proportion of the things wrong with the world. But he stands at the centre of a bitter argument with convenient parallels, which is fortunate, as otherwise this introduction really wouldn't work at all.
On the one side are the believers, the acolytes, #teamrafa, those that are convinced that Benítez is a slandered and rejected savant, confined to the wilderness by a shabby and undeserving world that fears him, fears his methods, and fears his daunting and magisterial potency. In a world of cowards, chancers, and conmen, Benítez was simply too noble, too perfect, too gosh-darned beautiful. One broadsheet journalist went so far as to identify "a myth and propaganda campaign that built up around him following his acrimonious departure from Liverpool in June 2010", which seems a little over-the-top.
Or maybe it isn't. Because on the other side of the argument are the naysayers, casters of aspersions and brickbats. To them, Benítez is a fraud and a charlatan, a man who for a while floated on a tide of fortune and bluster, but who was eventually laid low by his own fundamental inadequacies. A high priest of ugly, reductive football, a slave to systems over expression, a wastrel and a spendthrift.
And of course, Chelsea fans have their own specific axes to grind. His very existence is a reminder of that torrid sequence of Chelsea-Liverpool fixtures - the Shit On A Stick Series - that had fans of either side vibrating at dangerously high frequencies while neutrals wept tears of frustration and blood. Twice they exited the Champions League at his hands, both exits slathered in spite and bitching. Benítez today explained these digs as having been a means of building up his team, and something that fans like to see. Even if that second point were true - which is debatable - it's kind of beside the point; it's still been said. One suspects he won't be motivating his Chelsea team by slagging off Liverpool.
Anyway, this piece is not about which side is right. This is about why there are two sides, why they are so entrenched, and (the really interesting thing) why they are so far apart.
At heart, football thrives on arguments like this. Anybody in thrall to something so subjective and so tribal will inevitably find great delight in dragging down the messiahs that belong to the other lot. There has never been a player or manager that somebody, somewhere, didn't think was either over- or underrated, and there has never failed to be somebody else that completely disagreed. There are people out there -- actual grown-up adults, who are allowed to vote and breed and everything -- who think Eric Cantona was overrated. It's a strange world.
(As an aside, this has always been one of the bothersome things about Match of the Day. Four people in a room, all with opinions on football, and all agreeing with one another? Most suspicious.)
One peculiarity of Benítez's record is that his achievements can almost be as impressive or as unimpressive as you like. Take the Champions League final in 2005. If you're pro-, then Liverpool's comeback was a masterpiece of calmness under pressure, of managerial consideration, of responsive management, made all the more ridiculous by the presence of Djimi Traoré. If you're anti-, then not only was it a gargantuan fluke predicated on a Milan collapse, a Steven Gerrard dive, an Andriy Shevchenko brainfade and a penalty shoot-out, but it was all Benítez's fault in the first place. Similar cases can be put together for the FA Cup win in 2006 (stirring comeback/just West Ham, nearly lost), for the second place in 2009 (great part in proper title race/threw it away by ranting about 'facts'), and doubtless somebody with more knowledge of his time in Valencia could find a way of denigrating those too. (A cursory glance at the top three for those years does suggest an unusual - by today's ultrastretched standards - volatility at the top of Spanish football ... and in any case, they happened before every bugger watched el Clásico, knew it was called el Clásico, and had an opinion on tiki-taka, so do they even really count?)
You can do the same with his failures, too. Either his six months at Internazionale demonstrated his inability to manage at the very highest level, or he won a couple of minor pots despite succeeding José Mourinho, who scorches and salts the earth as he leaves. Either his last season at Liverpool was the consequence of his unsettling Xabi Alonso and replacing him with a Roman folk tale, or he was dragged down by the political maelstrom he found spinning up around him. Round and round we go, until we vanish up our own caveats.
It's an odd position to be in. He lacks the weight of silverware that defines those managers that his most ardent fans would claim to be his peers, but he has enough that his most bitter detractors can't legitimately label him useless. Something similar's true of the style argument. For a start, the Jorge Valdano "shit on a stick" line, while not precisely a compliment, was less a shot at Benítez's football and more about the dangers of confusing intensity with quality. And while it would never be true to describe his Liverpool as sexy (and even mildly arousing might at times have been a stretch), at their best they achieved a harmonious relentlessness that had its own aesthetic appeal.
There's more if you want it. Is his long spell out of work a sign of a man unwanted, or a man waiting for the right offer? Is he the happy shopper who bought Xabi Alonso, Javier Mascherano, Luis García and Fernando Torres, or the buffoon who bought Jermaine Pennant, Andrea Dossena, Robbie Keane and Ryan Babel? Is his pursuit of total control a strength, or a weakness? Is his beard a dapper addition or a monstrous carbuncle?
You start to wonder if the argument is all basically window-dressing. That the bickering over whether he's a genius undermined by a shadowy cabal, or a clown surfing on waves of misplaced affection, is just hiding a simpler way of looking at the problem. Maybe it's as straightforward as: if he's on your side, if he's part of your club, if he turns up and gets you the way he did Liverpool, then you like him. You like what he does, you like how he does it. He makes you feel good. But while he's doing that, to all the people on the outside, he has precisely the opposite effect: he rubs them up the wrong way, gets on their wick.
Then, of course, those that like him find their affections amplified by the terrible, unfair abuse he gets from other quarters, while those that don't find their contempt multiplied by the risible and foolish adulation of his fans. Back and forth it goes like a tennis ball, the two players being driven further and further apart by the power of each other's ground strokes.
The truth about his ability will fall somewhere between the two extremes, because that's how the world works. But the reasons for the polarised opinions are simpler than that, and have very little to do with how good he is, or isn't. That's what most arguing about football is, after all. That's what most talking about anything is. I like this. Well, I don't. I like him. Ah, but I don't.