Barcelona is enjoying an outstanding season so far in La Liga. The team from Catalunya won 11 of the first 14 league matches, with the other three ending in a draw, two of which come during difficult matches away from Camp Nou. With such a record you would think that Messi & co would be cruising their way to the title, but there is one team chasing them, and it’s not who you’d expect. No, it’s not Real Madrid, not even Atletico Madrid. It’s Valencia.
To the younger fans, it may come as a surprise. “The Bats,” as they are known, were far from impressive over the past few years. But for those who followed the Spanish League 15 or 20 years ago, this is anything but shocking.
In the late 1990’s and early 2000’s they were one of the most successful clubs, not only in Spanish soccer but in European competitions as well. Over the span of six seasons, Valencia won two La Liga championships, a Spanish Cup, a UEFA Cup, and also made it twice in a row to the Champions League final. The fans at the Mestalla, and the club executives, thought they would stay at the top for years to come. Their almost continuous appearances in the Champions League and another Spanish cup title in 2008 convinced everyone in Spain’s third largest city they were on the right track, but then came something no one in Valencia predicted. Actually, it was something very few people in the Western world predicted.
The 2008 financial crisis hit Spain hard, but while Real Madrid and Barcelona could still pay the sums that kept them at the top, Valencia couldn’t. Money stopped coming in and by early 2009 reports spoke of a massive 400 million Euro debt, with claims that players have not been paid for months. The club eventually secured a loan that helped it get through the season, but that meant that any spare money would go back to the creditors. That put the construction of the new stadium on hold. The “Nou Mestalla,” originally planned to be ready by 2009, is still standing with only the skeleton complete, a somber reminder of the careless, happy days of the pre-recession era.
Following years of financial trouble, there was some hope as the club was purchased by Singaporean businessman Peter Lim in 2014. The club may have been saved from its financial worries, but the fans quickly grew angry with the direction the team was heading under Lim. The managers and players he brought were almost all connected to Portuguese super agent Jorge Mendez, a close friend of Lim who is mostly known for being Cristiano Ronaldo’s agent. Lim also brought in general managers and directors with no soccer background, resulting in some of the poorest seasons for the club since its promotion from the second division some 30 years ago.
The disappointing results and continued demonstrations by fans made Lim realize that it may finally be time to listen. Experienced people were brought in to head the club, and the choice of the new manager finally signaled a long term strategy. Marcelino led Villareal to three straight top six finishes, but was surprisingly sacked at the beginning of the previous season due to differences with the board of directors. Lim knew that this is the man he wants to lead his team, but he also knew that the Spanish League laws forbid managers from coaching two La Liga teams during the same season.
While Valencia struggled last season with three different managers, Marcelino, who knew the job would be his the following season, basically became a scout, touring Europe and looking for players that can be molded to his philosophy. Young and talented prospects were located all over the continent, and now the good connections with Jorge Mendes proved to be helpful. Some of the players in the current squad may not have made the move if it wasn’t for the advice of the Portuguese agent.
It all proved right when this season began. Valencia, the youngest team in la Liga with an average age of 25, plays an aggressive, energetic, and pressing game, according to Mareclino’s philosophy. For those who followed Valencia back in the good old days, this definitely brings back some memories. Just like then, the defense is made up of strong and tall South American defenders. Just like then, strikers who have not excelled in other places are shining in Valencia, this time it’s Simone Zaza. And just like then, the Mestalla is a happy place, with the average attendance at over 40,000.
Does all this mean Valencia will again win two championships in the space of three seasons? Probably not. The difference between the two superpowers in the league and the rest of the pack is just too much to handle, even if you do everything right. And yet, maybe the real victory does not come in the form of titles and silverware, it is just the fact that this is a top club again, less than a decade after it ran the risk of financially collapsing.
Who knows, maybe when the club celebrates its 100th anniversary in early 2019 they may even do it in their new stadium, ten years after it was originally supposed to be inaugurated. That by itself, would be a major victory.