The year is 1956 and Europe is still recovering after the war that ravaged a continent. Football is still in it’s younger years, far from the modern game of money, information and power. Spain suffered it’s own war in the 1930’s and had been left under the rule of Franco and his Nationalist army. For the people it is nothing but a struggle to survive. In these times transfers were few and far between and players were mostly locals. The Spanish league had been started as late as February 1929, however Valencia were not able to join until 3 years later as the 10 spots were awarded to the nine best from the already existing Copa del Rey, plus Racing Santander.
Into the unknown
Leaned back in the worn out leather seat of the twin motor plane, he squints at the propeller blades through the air plane windows while the calm settles around him. Even if he had put 10.000 kilometres between himself and the satirical comments in the newspapers, the opinions of people and the heated arguments, it was still as if they were jumping at them as the plane tried to flee away from them. A former Valencia player Cubells had now become the sports director and he had escaped the unfamiliar situation, the heated atmosphere he had left while it was still developing. The club had lived amazing success the last 20 years, and that always had lost fighting, now found themselves in their weakest league position ever. The end of a peace that seemed invincible and ever lasting.
The lack of goal and the apparent mediocrity in the attacking play was the traits of a team that stopped working as soon as the ball crossed the centre of the pitch. While he stared over the hatch of the metal monster which brought him from one world to another, he envisioned the player he had to find. He knew everything about the team’s weaknesses, and the expectations to this adventure into theunknown. He could not return with just anything and disappoint the city he loved. In addition to his skill and knowledge, his suitcase was filled with enough cash to ensure the transformation that the team needed.
“Cubells travels to Paraguay”, to find nothing. “Cubells to Argentina”, to visit potato fields and hide away in cement stands without possibilities to discover the long desired talent he was looking for. Brazil was the last stop on a route that already had the distinct and stale smell of failure. A country fool of craziness and love for the leather ball, but still a nation far from future triumphs which made them the cradle of football’s greatest stars. In Rio he heard echoes of the song that raised Helenio de Freitas as the king of the carioca football. He was familiar with this character. While he was being told the stories of the Botafogo striker’s escapades, his mind slipped back in time, to when Salustiano was sacrificed under pressure from the stands to allow Gorostiza to shine one last time before the lights went off for good.
Contemplating about his limited height, olive skin and moustache, Cubells entertained himself with the thought that he could easily pass for a waiter in any of Sao Paulo’s cafés or restaurants. Maybe because of this almost natural camouflage, he got easier access to this football. «Zagalo e Rubens sao muito bons, mas com Heleno, nenhum”, they said. Zagalo and Rubens are very good, but like Heleno, no one. ‘O rolo compressor’ (the steamroller) of Flamengo and ‘os fabulosos’ (The fabulous) of Vasco da Gama were two of the most attractive attacking quintets in these years after Heleno’s fall. But the world seemed to have their eyes somewhere else. They were all firmly placed on a small, flimsy little kid from a poor neighbourhood in this city of millions. A lightning of a boy who trained without shoes and who left no doubt in his opponents mind that he could make them look like fools. Whenever he wanted to.
In these times where most clubs saw no further than their own back yard when looking for players, Valencia had sent their sports director to scrutinize a football which had never been explored. We envision Cubells squeezed in between locals in a ramshackle country side stadium, overhearing the plaintive whispers about the “Maracanazo”, while he observed this new species of ants, dressed in white and dribbling through the universe as one dances to the flowing tones of Mozart’s music. For Cubells only one, and one thing only was missing. The only possible headline for this trip: “I have found the bestplayer in the history of football. Full stop.” But he did not dare.
“I have returned, in love with another player. He is 16 years old. I could have got him for four fat dogs.” He gave it up as one long moan upon his return. He would never be free from this obsession, the only comfort he ever got was inviting Santos to friendlies, just to once be able to lay his eyes on this god given talent among Valencian shirts. Cubells was the only one in Europe who ever knew who this player was. Until he two years later landed in the Swedish city of Gothenburg, leading his country to the glory that would raise them up as the country on the world map of football.
When he left the stadium, still with a bad conscience about asking for the price of this amazing talent, he had to push his conviction to the edge. Days before, in Rio de Janeiro and despite an ocean of doubt, “the fabulous” had convinced him that their midfielders were the right ones. Vavá, Livinho, Sabará, Pinga and Walter was an amazing attack that had this pathetic looking Marciano, who became a devil with the ball in his possession. “I would have brought him if the atmosphere in Valencia had been different. And even as a backup player, not as an important piece. But the rage of the fans if I had presented a 16 year old, would have sent both me and him swimming back to Brazil.”
Back in the plane’s leather seat, he observed the far away lightning they had left behind. He still had a small hope that he had been wrong. Heading back to Valencia, Cubells fled a remorse he would never master. The atmosphere back home had calmed down after his last telegram. “Walter Marciano. Vasco da Gama. Brazil’s best player.” The same atmosphere which had forced him to leave in Brazil the young boy who could have changed Valencia’s history forever.
When the car arrived in the centre of Valencia, they emerged, still with the distinct smell of Copacabana, to be received by the fans. In a shack of a club house, President Luis Casanova took the word to thank Cubells for his achievement of getting the best player of Brazil to the club. The sports director answered only through a stiff nod, well aware that it was not the truth. He never reconciled with his decision. He knew he should have chosen the other one. But the circumstances that sent him half way around the world, had made it impossible to show up here in the capital of Turia with a barren kid, answering to a name the same as one of a famous duo of comedians.
“It would have been madness to move a young Brazilian to Valencia with the impatience that existed. In addition, the club was looking for someone with more personality, more fame and less risk.” This was how Cubells defended his decision after watching his favoured ant beat Kalle Svensson and caress history with tears in his eyes. “Cucala” was never the same. He left the club shortly after, knowing he would never forgive himself, forever contemplating what would have been, if he had just shown the courage he showed while scoring penalties with his back to the goal, to take over and revive a team in ruins after the civil war, and create the best Valencia that has ever been.
Hypnotized by the propeller blades of the same twin motor air plane, he was not yet aware that he was sitting there with the blank pages of the history book of football in front of him. In his hand a pen filled with ink to write a future he had but dreamed about. The future in which he saw the magical moments given to him by the 16 year old in his first Trofeo Naranja at Mestalla. The future in which his dreams had come true. The future that never would exist.
Eduardo “Cucala” Cubells was a Valencia player in the 1920s and achieved 5 championships in the regional series. He was also Valencia’s first ever national team player. Later he took the role as the club’s manager and led Valencia to it’s second La Liga championship. In the years after he was appointed sports director for life. Just after he left the club, his president and friend Luis Casanova followed him out of the club. Casanova was Valencia’s most successful president ever, and Mestalla carried his name from 1969 until Paco Roig decided to convert the name back to Mestalla in 1994 upon Casanova’s own request.