You might not be interested in football (and let’s just pause here to remind our non-European friends it is football, not soccer), but Spanish side Valencia have in recent years transcended the sport to such a degree even die-hard football haters would sit up and take notice.
Settled on Spain’s Mediterranean coast, Valencia Club de Futbol have several nicknames: Els Taronges (the oranges), Los Che (the boys), Los Murcielagos (the bats), Los Coppas de los Keystone. (I made that one up) and probably a few more gifted by supporters of local rivals Levante.
But what really makes Valencia stand out from other Spanish sides is their finances and the unintended consequences of a 750 million Euro debt. Flushed with the success of league titles and two Champions League final appearances in 2000 and 2001, the club went on a demented spending spree which left them with a half built 75 000 capacity stadium, six managers in eighteen months and a special turnstile used by players sold within five minutes of joining the club.
If we start with the stadium . . . where do we start? Valencia play at Mestalla (and again for all you football know-it-alls, it’s not The Mestalla any more than Liverpool play at The Anfield or Manchester United play at The Old Trafford. It’s just Mestalla.) Mestalla is one of the oldest ricketiest stadia in Spain, hence the desire to move. Construction of the new stadium was dependent on selling off Mestalla to property developers, but something went horribly wrong at Lehman Brothers in 2008. A financial crash no one at Valencia, or any other part of the world, saw coming.
With Mestalla’s real estate value dropping to about threepence the move was stalled and today men turn up at the New Mestalla building site and sit around smoking and reading newspapers. They have to be there otherwise, under Spanish law, the site will be considered abandoned and Valencia will lose it. Plans to continue construction are growing close, but for now the city has an impressive concrete ruin sitting there like an alien amphitheatre.
Of course, money problems didn’t just affect Valencia’s expansion plans. By now they were up to their eyeballs in debt and forced to sell off their best players. But the fire sale has lasted nearly a decade as the likes of David Villa, David Silva, Juan Mata, Jordi Alba and Roberto Soldado were flogged off to pay the rent and the wages of the clowns who remained.
Clowns? Yes, clowns? Under the desperate watch of embattled manager Unai Emery, a sort of cross between Ken Dodd and Ray Reardon, Valencia’s players suffered embarrassment on and off the pitch, climaxing with Ever Banega’s encounter with his own car. Having pulled up at a petrol station and left his handbrake on, Ever tried to stop the rolling two ton vehicle with his foot.
Ever Banega plays for Sevilla now. Other clowns such as lumpen defender Jeremy Mathieu were somehow magicked away to Barcelona and red card-prone David Albelda retired. A bunch of clowns like these needed a special kind of manager and the aforementioned Unai Emery was the first to be dealt this particular dead man’s hand.
Emery somehow took Valencia to the quarter finals of the Champions League and Europa League before receiving the white handkerchief treatment. He left for Sevilla and returned a few years later to knock Valencia out of the Europa League semi-final with a goal in the second minute of injury time.
Emery’s successors were Mauricio Pellegrino (lasted half a season), Ernesto Valverde (who lasted the other half.) Miroslav Dukic (survived as long as Christmas, half a season), and Juan Antonio Pizzi (who also continued Valencia’s habit of kicking out bad managers after a couple of months.) The problems were not just on the pitch, and to his credit Ernesto Valverde could have been the man to rescue Valencia if it hadn’t been for the boardroom merry-go-round.
A succession of spivs, chancers, weirdos and maniacs had, over the years, dug Valencia’s financial grave until 2014 when Singaporean billionaire Peter Lim took control. And then something happened. . . .
Under the guidance of Portuguese coach Nuno Espirito Santo (yes, the Holy Ghost himself, such was the club’s plight they needed a miracle from divine intervention), under Espirito Santo Valencia started winning, winning not by scoring more goals than the opposition, but scoring more goals and then not letting any in, not losing games in injury time because of time-wasting fifteen minutes from the end, not tripping over each other’s feet in the penalty box – at both ends – and not being hammered every time by Barcelona and Real Madrid.
Under Lim and the Holy Ghost Valencia are third in La Liga, the New Mestalla is under construction once again, old Mestalla has new orange seats and the club are beginning to look like the club they once were: Spain’s third side (after the financial behemoths of Barcelona and Real Madrid).
How long it’ll last no one can predict. Perhaps the downfall will begin again now that I’ve written this post about the future looking rosy. But one thing is guaranteed: there’s never a dull moment supporting Valencia Club de Futbol. In the years I’ve been watching there have been the extraordinary highlights of coming back from three goals down against Basel when everybody on earth had written them off, beating Barcelona at Nou Camp, and the impossible heartbreak of that defeat with the last kick of the game against Sevilla.
Watching Valencia is a good cardio-vascular workout better than any ten mile jog. The emotional ride as hair-raising as Ever Banega’s runaway clown car. The satisfaction of unexpected victory life affirming.