History warns us to be skeptical of foreign ownership in Spanish soccer. One minute we’re being told Racing Santander “could compete with Real Madrid and Barcelona,” and then the man that told us that, Ashan Ali Syed, disappears off the face of the earth, wanted by Interpol. Racing is now in the second division.
Malaga’s tale isn’t as dramatic, but neither did it have the happy ending Sheikh Abdulla Al-Thani had promised us. Once in the Champions League, he decided to asset strip the squad, flogging the likes of Santi Cazorla and eventually Isco, and instead let the team rebuild itself through youth. At least it’s still in the top flight.
But here we find ourselves once again, drooling of a success story at Valencia fueled by the cash of outside investors — not that rich foreign owners pumping money into indebted soccer clubs should necessarily be considered a success story.
Singapore billionaire Peter Lim has followed on from Ali Syed and Al-Thani, taking control of 70 percent of Valencia earlier this season after 10 grueling months of negotiations with Bankia, who owned the club’s debt. Once again, the eternal question has been prompted: Will Club X (in this case Valencia) be able to crash the Madrid-Barça party?
Valencia’s chances have to be better than Racing’s or Malaga’s ever were. Six-time champions of La Liga, it already carries plenty of significance within the Spanish game. And if Atlético Madrid was able to topple the duopoly without money last year, Lim’s cash should make it even easier. Right, Peter?
On Saturday, Valencia travels three hours up Spain’s east coast to tackle one of the teams it wants to usurp: Barcelona. The team ended the Catalan side’s 21-month, 31-game unbeaten La Liga streak at Camp Nou last January with an impressive 3-2 win, and this season it heads north in much better shape than it did then.
Los Che is closer to the top than it has been since 2007 when it finished 10 points behind first place — it won two titles and a UEFA Cup under Rafa Benítez’s leadership in the first four years of the millennium — and has already scored more goals than it managed last season. It’s lost just four of its 31 outings, the same as Barça, and has the league’s second best defense — man of steel Nicolás Otamendi (right) has made sure of that, not even injuries have kept him out of action at times this season.
It’s not just battling for a Champions League spot, either; it’s also battling reigning champions Atlético for third. Going into the weekend’s games Valencia are just one point back from Diego Simeone’s side.
Javi Fuego is the grandpa of the squad, and he’s only 31. The average age is 25, and there are plenty of young (ish), exciting players for fans to squeal about: Paco Alcácer, André Gomes, Pablo Piatti, Dani Parejo, José Luis Gayà … although it looks like the latter may be tempted by Madrid’s flickering eyelashes in the not too distant future — his contract negotiations have with Valencia have hit a rock.
These players are all under the control of Nuno Espírito Santo, and it is in the Portuguese coach that you can find a reason to say: Yes, Valencia can go toe-to-toe with the apex predators and possibly prevail victorious.
Back in the 1990s, Nuno was merely a modest goalkeeper with Vitoria Guimaraes; a modest goalkeeper who happened to know a slick-suited Porto nightclub owner. That slick-suited Porto nightclub owner happened to be named Jorge Mendes.
Mendes managed to arrange for Nuno to move to Deportivo de La Coruña. It was the first ever transfer he was involved in, and the super agent was born. Last summer, Mendes was involved in multi-million transfer deals which saw the likes of James Rodríguez, Ángel Di María and Diego Costa switch clubs. He’s also the agent of Cristiano Ronaldo and José Mourinho; some have referred to him as “the most powerful man in soccer.”
Nuno was Lim’s choice and he replaced Juan Antonio Pizzi last summer, much to the bemusement of some Valencia fans. He has quickly reversed that bemusement by installing a direct, aggressive and intense style of soccer, though. Unburdened by European soccer like the four other teams in the top five, Valencia has vindicated Lim’s choice.
“The midfielders always pressure and I always want the team to attack,” Nuno has reiterated throughout the season. That has been evident. Both Madrid and Atlético have fell at Mestalla.
It’s helped that several Mendes clients (Álvaro Negredo and Enzo Pérez, for example) have given him a boost to the squad. In time, that influence could be the difference between the success and failure of Lim’s project.
Lim has also voiced a desire to resurrect the 61,500-capacity Nou Mestalla, Valencia’s crumbling, empty, shell-of-a-new stadium. When the economic crisis hit Spain hard, building ceased on the Los Che‘s new home. But Lim says he wants it ready for the 2018-19 season, just in time for the club’s centenary year.
Few would argue it wouldn’t be good to see Valencia regularly competing for the title in La Liga. It is the third biggest city in Spain, the home of paella, and when Mestalla is rocking, full to the brim with 55,000 fanatical supporters, there are few better venues to witness soccer at in the south of Europe.
“Success won’t come over night,” the club’s first female president, Chan Lay Hoon, has warned, pointing out that it will have to comply with UEFA’s Financial Fair Play regulations. But Lim’s message is different. He’s spoken of a desire to bring Manchester City’s David Silva back to the club and Piatti, speaking from inside the dressing room, says “there is no ceiling” to what Valencia can achieve.
Another step towards its goals would be a second successive win at Camp Nou. Fifth placed Sevilla shocked Barça last week by fighting back to earn a point from two goals down. Now it’s up to Nuno and his young squad to show their Champions League credentials.
We must be careful, of course, as we’ve been led down the wrong path by foreign investors before. But Lim, Mendes and Nuno appear to be a good mix. They look to have the club heading in the right direction. As long as they remain patient, there shouldn’t be any need for Interpol to get involved.