It was a simultaneously inspiring and sad sight. Returning to Valencia for a few nights’ decompression after the Festival Internacional de Benicassim – located an hour north of the city, on the Costa Azahar – we looked down from the roof of our hotel, looming over the Nou Mestalla. In the falling dusk, it could easily have been mistaken for a titanic sporting arena, rather than just the skeleton of one. When we spoke to the locals about it, they told us of rumors that the foundations of the stadium had shifted since work stopped on it over a year before, and that the whole lot may have to be pulled down.
The “Nou” Mestalla, seen here in Sept. 2010, has already become an old joke. Though construction began in Aug. 2007, new Valencia ownership hopes to begin using the venue in 2019. (Photo: Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images Sport)
For context, it should be pointed out that this took place in July 2010, over four years ago. That’s how long Valencia has been stuck in a grim netherworld, unable to move on, fearful of the present and barely able to grasp at an increasingly unattainable future. That shadow of a stadium has been a symbol of inert ambition, but in the last few months, valencianistas have dared to dream again.
For Saturday’s visit of champion Atlético Madrid, the current Mestalla (dating from 1923) was given a quick lick of paint. Whether the current improvement on the pitch, which reached a high point with Los Che’s exhilarating 3-1 win, is a similar superficial cover-up of existing blemishes or the real thing remains to be seen. Yet for some over 50,000 fans in a buoyant sell-out crowd in the afternoon sun, it felt like the good times were back.
On Sunday morning, leading sports newspaper Marca was even persuaded to include the headline “El Valencia es candidato” – Valencia is a candidate, for La Liga. It was easy to be swept away by the moment, as Atleti was, swamped by a rampant home side with three goals in the first 13 minutes of the match. The atmosphere, which had not been seen at the Mestalla for many a year apart from last season’s raucous Europa League semifinal, was heady and hypnotic too.
It is still hard, at least yet, to make a convincing argument that they really will last the distance, as they bed in a new team and a new coach, but the identity of the vanquished on Saturday was important. Atleti is not just Spain’s champion but a flagship of what can be done with impeccable leadership, commitment and organization, even while in the slipstream of Real Madrid and Barcelona’s untouchable commercial means. Atleti and Valencia have run the two highest debts in La Liga over the last five years, each hovering around the 500 million euro mark.
Here, finally, Valencia had the fight and the focus, and Atleti’s acknowledgement. “This is how football should be played,” trumpeted Valencia’s impressive young coach Nuno after the match, describing the contest as “aggressive, but (played) with respect.”
Nuno took Rio Ave to two cup finals in Portugal, achievements that earned him a one-year contract with Valencia in July. Through seven games in La Liga, the former goalkeeper is undefeated, guiding Los Che to within two points of league-leading Barcelona. (Photo: Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images Sport)
Nuno was an unexpected choice for the hot seat, with the former goalkeeper having held only one senior post before (albeit pretty successfully), in his homeland at modest Rio Ave. He was the explicit choice of owner-elect Peter Lim, with Valencia hoping to be bedding the Singaporean businessman into office soon. Lim is still attempting to put the finishing touches to a club purchase originally thought to be finalized earlier this year. He missed the Atleti match while back in Singapore working on an agreement with Valencia’s major creditor (and part owner), Bankia, which is the one issue holding up the sale’s completion.
Sealing the deal would open up Valencia’s future. The club would be able to get on with selling the current Mestalla and finishing the new one, as well as investing in the playing squad. In the meantime, Lim has been helping out as best he can, loaning players owned by his player investment fund, Meriton, including promising Portuguese midfielder André Gomes, whose sensational goal put Valencia two up against Atleti on Saturday. Yet this, in the same way that the previous hand-to-mouth existence of selling Juan Mata, David Villa and David Silva one at a time, is not the road to sustainability.
The club owning its own players is a must, which is why the young stars of the side, led by forward Paco Alcácer and left back José Gayá, are so important. Home-grown and adored by the fans, they are what gives this new Valencia its soul. With Alcácer having scored on his full debut for Spain in September, it is clear they have talent, too.
It is the Nou Mestalla, however, that remains the measure by which one can eventually say Lim’s project did fly, or die. When he submitted his mandate earlier this year, it was his aim to make sure that Valencia would be playing in the completed new stadium in time to celebrate the club’s centenary in 2019. Only if that finally comes to pass will we able to say that Valencia is truly healthy.