The cocky promise of a green bullfighter

It looked like  the end of an era. Instead it was the beginning of an even better one. Much because of an unknown but ambicious man from Madrid. It was the golden era of Rafa.

Late in the summer of 2001 the twin towers still stood tall on Manhattan, teenagers listened to “Lady Marmalade” while mourning the end of the “Friends” sitcom, and the news were filled with hysteria about the cow disease. While in Valencia the fans were pessimistic ahead of a new season. And they had many reasons to do so.

Preparing for a fall

The club had just passed their zenit as the previous month of May saw them heartbreakingly lose to Bayern Munich on penalties in the Champions League final, and now the star team that had mesmerized the football world was dismantled. There would also be no Champions League as Rivaldo’s bicycle kick in the last minute of the last match day in the previous season put the ‘blanquinegres’ outside the golden spots. The club president Pedro Cortés inexplicably dismissed himself. Stars like Mendieta, Deschamps and Zahovic left. So did coach Héctor Cuper, while rumours were strong that Kily González would do the same (he eventually stayed). The star signing of a new ‘Matador’, Chilean superstriker Marcelo Salas, never materialized, and to top it all the new president contracted a green, unknown coach when everybody expected someone much more merited to lead Los Che.

“Rafa Benítez who? Sounds like a bullfighter”, was the sarcastic comment in Valencian bars and coffee shops ( and, reportedly, in the board room too). Benítez was still very young for an elite coach, and apart from coaching spells at Extremadura and Valladolid, his only merit on his CV was gaining promotion with CD Tenerife the previous season. But he had balls. And a the brains to go with it. Along with promises of a title, he brought the relatively unknown striker Mista and left back Curro Torres. The credit for bringing Benítez was due for Javier Subirats, a former club legend who would later get David Villa to the club. But none gave it to him at the time, as no one could see a way for this squad to challenge the ‘galácticos’ of Real Madrid, with Zidane, Figo and Raúl in their roster. And exactly Real Madrid was incidentally their opponents in the first league match of the season at Mestalla. But Rafa would show his tactical brilliance immediately, silencing the critics, and building the first stone on what was going to be a season not even the most optimistic fan even dared to envisage when it started.

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A young David Albelda completely neutralized Zinedine Zidane (and without getting a yellow card!), while Angulo scored the only goal of the game. And in the next thirteen league matches, Valencia managed eight draws and five victories, hence losing none. But then came a difficult period. Not only came two consecutive league losses. The worst was the eliminacion in the Copa del Rey to Segunda B dwarfs Novelda. Not that Valencia lost against them. But in the away match (and what turned out to be the only one, which Valencia won 1-0), too many foreigners was on the pitch in the second half, which automatically gave the village outside Alicante the victory. It was a scandal of huge proportions, and at first Benítez was blamed in the press. But former Valencia Juan Cruz Sol took the blame (he had managed to do the same blunder earlier under Valdano), and resigned, while Benítez was pardoned.

Still, the pressure was on him as they went for the away match in Barcelona against Espanyol. And the Olímpic de Montjüich stadium seemed to hold its curse as Valencia’s horror ground when the home team took a 2-0 lead. At that moment, Benítez was probably closer to get the sack than he (and us, in retrospect) wanted to contemplate. But fortunately the erratic (and increasingly chubbier) Adrian Ilie would give his last service to his club, and together with the rising hero Rufete, Valencia turned it around to 3-2 in just seven minutes. Valencia won in emphatic fashion, the ‘afició’ renewed their hopes, and Rafa could celebrate christmas knowing he was still in charge for the 2002 spring campaign.

The unrelentless bite of an underdog

Which started at a revenge-hungry Santiago Bernabeu. And which of course was full of controversy. Referee Pérez Pérez, a debutant in Primera, shamelessly denied Ilie a perfectly legal goal, and Real Madrid won 1-0. President Ortí and the rest of the Valencia fans were furious, while the Madrid press called them ‘llorones’, or cry babies. It was another ‘robbery’ when facing Spain’s biggest club, just like countless other ones before and after. And as a consequence, Real Madrid took over the lead in the league.

But the debacle at Bernabeu seemed to galvanize Valencia. Ok, they lost the next home match against Valladolid, but first a solitary goal in Las Palmas by Mista, and then a 2-1 win away to season surprise team Alavés (where Norwegian giant John Carew scored his only league goal of the season, and Cañizares stopped a decisive penalty), saw them gather an unstoppable momentum. Real Madrid kept the pole position in the table, but it was a tight one. Six other teams breathed down their necks, and none more than the ones from the capital of Turia.

The team was a motor that started to show it had the gears, speed and the horse power to hang on to the fancied ‘merengues’. FC Barcelona was comfortably swept aside at Mestalla, before “the new Mendieta”, Pablo Aimar, took home three points from Tenerife with an exquisite goal. Aimar had a wonderful partnership with a hell bent Rubén Baraja, while the central defence composed of Roberto Fabián ‘Ratón’ Ayala and Mauricio Pellegrino was solid as the bedrock in Minecraft. The other contenders fell off one by one, but Valencia just kept up with an increasingly nervous Real Madrid.

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Pablo Aimar

A temporary setback came in the UEFA Cup as Inter Milan under none other than Héctor Cuper became too strong, and where local talent and outfield player Farinós had to step in as a goalkeeper at an epic match at Mestalla. It was followed by a disappointing draw at Mallorca. Was this the end of the dream, just as it started to become real? The help came unexpectedly from Pamplona as lowly Osasuna shockingly beat Real Madrid. And for the next match against Deportivo at Mestalla, the fans came in droves to push the team forward with their lungs. And small pieces of paper. “Operación Papelitos” made Mestalla look like a Boca Juniors-River Plate derby, and Depor’s Duscher was probably intimitated by the atmosphere to score the own goal that also became the only one in a match Valencia totally dominated from start to final whistleblow.

Three matches remained. Real Madrid still held a slender lead, and just couldn’t shake off a Valencia that had only lost one match (against Rayo) in their last fourteen matches. In which ten were victories. Another home match awaited as Espanyol came to visit. This time nervousness made Mestalla tremble, and the crowd probably ate more nails than sunflower seeds that night. And it started badly as Ayala handballed in the area after half an hour for a penalty that Tamudo converted. Bad went to worse as Amadeo Carboni did a ‘Leonardo’ and hit De Lucas in the face with a ferocious elbow lunge. ‘Deo’ was duly sent off (he actually went straight home in fury at himself), and again the quest for the title seemed to derail at a vital moment.

Euphoria in Turia

But fortune would turn again as growns went first to murmurs and then cheers in the stands. Real Sociedad had taken the lead against Real Madrid, and a ten man Valencia found new inspiration. Along with it came Kily González as a substitute. And the number 18 would turn out to be decisive as he stormed down the flank. First he escaped the offside trap, controlled a high pass into the area with his chest, before crossing to Baraja who came like a projectile from behind before hitting it first touch to score an emblematic equalizer. Then, seven minutes from the end, Aimar danced in midfield to avoid snappy Espanyol legs before waiting just long enough (the Argentinean art of the ‘pausa’) before dispatching it to ‘paisano’ Kily on the right. The quick winger crossed hard, and again the ball connected with Baraja who headed it with such force that it made Gullit’s goal in the ’88 Euro final look like it bounced off a bean bag. 2-1 and Mestalla exploded in joy while ‘Pipo’ ran around with his arms extended like the true saviour he was. Valencia took over the lead in the league with two rounds to go as the ‘madrileños’ reeled from a 0-3 loss in the Basque country. The Marca front page the next day had Baraja all over it with the headline “Rompe la Baraja”  (‘Baraja breaks it’) and “This is how you win the league”, while a smaller picture of a frustrated Zidane below read “This is how you lose the league”.

But it wasn’t settled yet as Valencia travelled to Málaga for the penultimate round. Thousands of fans took the trip down to what could be the decisive match as their team now had it in their own hands. “Not yet, not yet”, Carboni tried to calm the most euphoric as the local press triggered a tsunami of superlatives on their keyboards. Still, there was no reason to worry as Valencia quickly took control while not leaving the home team any room for a surprise opener. Instead it was fitting that it was Ayala who opened the goal count after 34 minutes with a header. After all, the key to Valencia’s success was the waterproof defence lead by him. And what a leader! As Rufete ran over and flung himself around his neck in ecstasy, Ayala requested calmness and concentration. Job first, party later. Not that ‘Rufo’ had to wait too long.

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By now, Valencia was just full to the brim of self esteem and didn’t care about having nerves. Before half time the sublime Aimar played a brilliant triangle that saw Fabio Aurélio through on goal, and the Brazilian capitalized. The referee first wasn’t sure if it was onside, but finally allowed the goal after some agonizing seconds. Málaga never answered, and the second half was just a past time for the Valencia fans to celebrate in Rosaleda’s stands. Valencia had won the league after 31 years of waiting. Because meanwhile, Real Madrid collapsed as an overpriced house of season tickets as they lost 0-2 at home to Depor, as the valencians that stayed home crowded every fountain, plaza and bar in the city in wild celebrations as tears of joy filled the Turia river bed to the tunes of “Himno de Valéncia”.

The final match at Mestalla was a pure party worthy for the annals. Valencia took Betis for a round of honour as superhero Baraja and promising magician Vicente Rodríguez scored the only goals in a match that saw Palop save a penalty. For Jocelyn Anglomá it was the last of his career, and duly got his homage from a packed Mestalla that seemed to pop like a shaken Cava bottle at any moment. Which it did when the team finally lifted the league trophy in front of its own fans after full time. The unknown, cocky ‘bullfighter’ had done what he promised to do. What no one believed in at the beginning. He didn’t care what the press said, as long as the players, and later the Real Madrid players, thought it was possible. And not only believed it was possible, but that it was inevitable. Valencia and Benítez had shown that money wasn’t everything with what was regarded a low cost team full of has-beens (like 37-year old Carboni) and what most in advance thought were never-to-be-greats. Instead it was Real Madrid president Florentino Pérez who counted his galactic expenses as Real Madrid fell to third place after four consecutive losses.

Meanwhile, the Valencia staff gleefully cleared space in their trophy cabinet for their fifth league title. And they didn’t have to wait too long for their next job…

You don’t remember? Well, this clip is well worth the ten minutes it lasts to help you understand. To understand that again, Los Che have a license to dream.

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