The target is reached. Champions League. The great and crucial goal of the new Valencia CF so important both for economical room and for making top class players wanting to come. And stay. But now what?
After many turbulent years many expected, me included, a less nerve-wrecking silly season this summer. The agonic times are gone when it was inevitable that our best players would leave just to keep the ship floating, while what came in were scraps found under the rich clubs’ table. The circus of the sale of the club itself was over, and the road ahead towards glory seemed long, but free of bumps. Well, that’s not entirely true. Anyone looking close enough could easily see the contradictions between former sports director Rufete’s transfer policy and super agent Jorge Mendes’ tight relation to both coach Nuno and owner Peter Lim. It was always an uneasy marriage, and bound to end at one point.
The shock was in the way it happened. Because even if their philosophies weren’t compatible in the long run, at least from outside the club seemed to had found a unprecedented level of professionalism. One would expect that to include communication and a clear chain of command. A couple of months before I had asked Rufete myself if it was problematic planning the upcoming transfer season with Mendes lurking in the shadows.
-Not in the slightest!, he assured me. Of course he couldn’t tell me anything else, as it was on record. But he gave the impression that he did his job, and even if he couldn’t get all his wishes, he accepted the status of not being a omnipotent sports director under the circumstances. It turned out it wasn’t so. And when he left, he took ‘superstar-among-fans’ Amadeo Salvo with him. In reality, the power of both was greatly diminished as soon as the sale was formalized. Rodrigo Caio-gate was the catalyst, and clearly demonstrated that the rift had existed for a while.
On first hand it didn’t seem a smart move to oust neither Salvo or Rufete. Without Amadeo the interface between Asian corporatism and patriotic valencianism disappeared. And in Rufete the club lost not only a hard working man highly respected by fans, staff and players alike (ironically he’s now been replaced by a man who worked where Rufo learned his academy trade). But also a useful gateway directly to the high quality, but yet budget South American player market as Ayala left with him. And Jorge Mendes does not rule this market as he does in Europe.
Pre season results haven’t been the best either. In the match against AS Roma in the Trofeo Naranja, the last test before the vital first leg against AS Monaco for the Champions League spot, the local journalists surrounding me moaned and sulked as Valencia’s midfield was overrun again and again. OK, it was just a friendly. But it wasn’t like Totti & co had to give it all to win comfortably. The absence of Otamendi and André Gomes was notable, while any attempt by Nuno to play a line of three at the back had more or less failed every time. All summed up, at this point it had been far from the exciting transfer summer the Valencia fans had hoped for. No iconic signings in, and instead local icons in the administration out. And after Salvo’s exit, it became apparent that also the local press was at loss with transfer rumours. To top it all, last season’s titan in the team, Nicolás Otamendi, was outbound for Premier League and a quadrupled salary. From being a fan favourite, he turned into another mercenary, only using Valencia as a shopping window before ditching us at the first opportunity (I have to shoot in here that I totally understand him. Would you say no to getting four times what you get on your salary slip right now?). But how could he be replaced? In a way, it all had the appearance of a perfect storm after so many sunny days.
#12 – The demanding but faithful player
Would the fans turn against Lim’s project with an unchained Jorge Mendes having a field day in the background? Wouldn’t the orange press squeeze out more critical articles as they now felt left out of the loop? And was the squad really ready to take on Monaco, who already were match fit after starting their season sooner? These thoughts went through my head while I counted the days until the first leg against the French at Mestalla.
One of the questions was quickly answered. By the fans. The club had dumped the ticket prices, but it wasn’t a give away that this tactic would fill the stadium as the match was scheduled in the middle of the Spanish holiday, when many were away. This time I decided to go as another fan, simply so I could express my emotions during the match, and better suck in those of the others (on the press stand you have to show a certain level of neutrality, of course. No Valencia shirt, no yelling abuse to the ref, no singing, one beer before match tops.). The line to get a ticket was never ending, even if I went several days before the match! Before, getting a ticket had always been a simple task, even when playing Real Madrid or Barcelona. Not so any more!
When I finally left for Mestalla on match day, arriving four hours before kick off, it was even more impressive! I’ve been to matches countless times, but never had I seen Avenida de Suecia so choke full of people! It took me next to an hour to get a can of beer, since bar after bar went dry. Even the supermarket close by was eventually sold out(according to rumours, I never went there)! For sure the fans believed! Still, it was interesting during the presentation of the squad, where Nuno got whistled out by quite many. But in general there was an atmosphere of hope and excitement. Even more impressive was the throng of fans that slept for almost two days outside Mestalla to obtain tickets for the return leg in Monaco. When they finally got back home, they’d been without their bed for 3 1/2 days, going back and forth in a caravan of buses.
As we all know Valencia qualified. It was nervy at the end, but Álvaro Negredo’s brilliant angled chip goal, literally worth millions, nailed it. It’s hard to emphasize enough how important it was. As I’ve stressed many times before, one thing is the money Champions League participation generates. They aren’t as crucial today as under Manuel Llorente’s era. No, more importantly, it makes our stars want to stay, despite getting lower wages than in example signing for Leicester or Aston Villa. I’m quite certain that if Otamendi had gotten the same deal he got at Manchester City, but only from non-Champions League clubs, he’d chosen to stay.
Secondly, the UCL spot attracts stars, for the same reasons as above. For top players, Champions League is like actors wanting to go to Hollywood. You can be ever so good, and make tons of money. But the world won’t recognize you as top shelf material until you’re on the Hollywood blockbuster.
Well, Valencia beat Monaco. And the group stage draw certainly can’t be complained about. But the Monaco matches also showed that it won’t be a walkover either. In one way I don’t want to be too harsh. The did their job, and the squad is still very young. Also, it’s very early in the season, and top teams usually underperform at this stage before finding their stride. But it was concerning how disjointed Los Che’s midfield has been lately. Last season Mestalla was a fortress, and only one team managed to win there (FC Barcelona). But both against AS Roma and AS Monaco Valencia dominated the match just for a few minutes at a time, while letting in four goals.
Up where we belong
The coming results will show if this can be corrected. Competing against increasingly stronger opposition for the CL spots in the league while also challenging in Europe is a big task for this squad. Poor results, especially in the league, might unrail the euphoria that has been built up. Nuno can smoothtalk at presser until he’s blue in the face about how competitive his lads are. But the millions spent (Valencia is the highest spender in Europe so far this summer if we include the payments for players acquired last season) will ultimately be assessed on the league table. We’re finally back in the golden loop, and we must stay there. If not, Peter Lim might see that this business plan was a failed one, and stop investing us to the next level.
But tomorrow’s worries can wait. Before tonight’s match one thing is clear. The summer signings can’t be criticised. Maybe players like Abdennour, Santi Mina and Ryan will flop, you never know. But you’d have to be mad to claim it now, and considering the competition, there’s a lot of credit to be given to the squad planning. Jorge Mendes might be a double edged sword. But a player like Abdennour would have been impossible to sign without him. After all, it’s in the Portuguese super agent’s interest to see Valencia rise to the top as well. He’ll win a lot more that way than any other.
To be a supporter of Valencia isn’t a pain free exercise. It’s a club locked in the belief that they belong higher up, despite their history. We’re known to be too demanding in the rest of Spain. A club like Sevilla could survive years without being in the top four, but fans never revolted because of results. Valencia’s ambitions have often been an obstacle for long term planning in the past. But this time, even with results going against us for a while, the Mestalla crowd can’t easily oust the decision makers anymore with white hankies. One can certainly choose not to like that the power now is rooted in a high rise office in Singapore instead of local forces who have grown up with a heart for Valencia. Screw modern, corporate football and all that. But we are almost guaranteed that this project, full of top class young talents on the brink of world fame, will get the time it needs to blossom into title grabbers.
May our stars be like the real ones in the sky. Coming from dust nobody notices until they’re big enough to shine. Brighter and brighter, making Valencia Club de Fútbol a galaxy just growing in size until its gravitational pull sucks up all the trophies within its grasp. Soñar, soñar, y soñar! Dream, dream, and dream! The journey starts now! To glory and beyond!