It’s difficult to conceive of how difficult it has been to be a fan of Valencia CF for the last decade. After making two successive Champions League finals at the turn of the millennium, and winning two La Liga titles (2001-02 and 2003-04) and the UEFA Cup (2003-04) under Rafa Benitez, the bottom fell out of the club in the mid-2000s. Following their UEFA Cup victory, Benitez, angered by the President’s refusal to back him in the transfer window, left for Liverpool. In came President Juan Bautista Soler, who promised spending to keep the glory days going. Significant money was spent on Ever Banega, David Villa, Joaquin, Manuel Fernandes, and Stefano Fiore. A new stadium was planned to replace the aging, 55,000-capacity Estadio Mestalla.
Four years later, the club had burned through three coaches (Claudio Ranieri, Quique Sanchez Flores, Ronald Koeman) with significant severance pay devoted to firing each midway through the season. The club went through five sporting directors, three medical generals, four club captains and, with the exception of David Villa, most of their big-money transfers ended up being a bust. To Soler, salvation lay in the Nou Mestalla: sell the old ground, and make huge money off of naming rights and ticket sales in the ultra-modern, 75,000-seat arena. But then the Spanish property market collapsed in late 2007, and buyers for the Mestalla ground evaporated. As Sid Lowe so aptly put it, Valencia were put in the awkward position of having two stadiums – one they couldn’t finish, and one they couldn’t sell. The club’s debt rapidly spiraled out of control: Standing at €125 millionin 2004, it had reached €500 million by 2008. Creditors stopped being paid, as did the players. Performances lagged, and Soler eventually sold his shares to Vincente Soriano in 2008 with the club out of the Champions League and on the verge of bankruptcy.
In stepped Bankia, the club’s main creditor, to take over as the principal shareholder. Saddled with half a billion euros of debt, the bank imposed a strict, austere financial regime on the club. Wherever money could be made, it was. Footballers were put on offer to visit birthday parties and weddings for a fee, the Mestalla was rented out to literally anyone who wanted pitch playing time, while Valencia’s biggest and brightest stars were put up for sale. Raul Albiol went to Real Madrid in 2009, David Villa, David Silva, and Carlos Marchena were sold to Barcelona, Manchester City, and Villarreal in 2010. Juan Mata went to Chelsea a year later, then Jordi Alba to Barcelona in 2012. Principal goalscorer and club captain Roberto Soldado went to Tottenham Hotspur in 2013. Jeremy Mathieu went to Barcelona in the summer of 2014, while longtime left-back Juan Bernat went to join Pep Guardiola at Bayern Munich. In each case, replacements were brought in on the cheap, with the club desperately pouring every bit of transfer revenue into paying down debt. For three consecutive seasons, Valencia finished 3rd in La Liga and qualified for the Champions League, but they never really competed with the Madrid-Barcelona duopoly; in 2010-11 and 2011-12, Valencia were closer to the relegation zone than to the league title. When the club missed out on the Champions League in 2012-13 – finishing fifth after being knocked out by Sevilla on the last day of the league, the collapse only furthered: chaos reigned as Soriano was replaced by Almando Salvo, who promptly sacked Miroslav Djukic – two days after declaring that the coach was “safe for the rest of the season.” Juan Antonio Pizzi took over in December 2013 and stabilized the club. But despite several huge results – including a 3-2 victory at the Camp Nou and one of the most ridiculous comebacks in the history of European football against FC Basel, the club ultimately finished outside of the European places for the first time since 2005. If there was a rock bottom, Valencia had hit it.
Enter Peter Lim.
One of the richest men in Singapore, Lim had attempted to buy Liverpool FC in the late 2000s before they eventually were purchased by the owners of the Redsox. In late 2013, Lim declared his intention to purchase Valencia from Bankia. His offer was incredibly attractive to Valencia fans: he promised to wipe out the club’s debt, resume construction on the Nou Mestalla, and use his immense fortune and close connections to super-agent Jorge Mendes to bring in a truckload of new signings. However, closing the deal proved difficult: Bankia routinely pulled out of negotiations, holding out for a better deal on the debt that the club owed them, and negotiations with Lim were on the verge of collapse at least a half-dozen times. There was even a takeover bid by former President Soler, who was arrested after attempting to kidnap the current President of the club in a bid to extort profits from any eventual sale of the club. Finally, after nearly eight months of negotiations, Lim completed his purchase of the club in August.
The changes were immediate: Pizzi was dismissed, with former Porto goalkeeper Nuno Espirito Santo – Mendes’s first client – brought in as Valencia’s new coach. Through Meriton Capital Holdings, Lim also owns a significant stake in many of the star players in Portugal’s Primeira Liga. Consequently, many of them were brought to Valencia on loan deals while Lim completed his takeover of the club: Nicolas Otamendi was purchased from FC Porto for €12 million, while Andre Gomes, Joao Cancelo, and Rodrigo Moreno were all loaned from Benfica – with the expectation that Meriton would transfer their ownership to Valencia once Lim completed his takeover. Alvaro Negredo arrived on loan from Manchester City, with the possibility of purchasing the former Sevilla striker the following season. Shkodran Mustafi, a World Cup winner with Germany, was added from Sampdoria, while Enzo Perez – World Cup Finalist with Argentina and 2013-14 Primeira Liga Player of the Year – was purchased this month for a club-record €25 million.
The results have been spectacular. Under Nuno, Valencia play an extremely aggressive, up-tempo style of football that has been extremely difficult for most La Liga teams to cope with. Described as “more Jurgen Klopp than Pep Guardiola or Jose Mourinho”, Valencia come flying out of the gates, press high up the pitch, and score a remarkable number of goals early in the game. This season, they have beaten Atletico Madrid 3-1 at the Mestalla, scoring three goals in the opening twenty minutes to seal the game, defeated Real Madrid 2-1 to end the team’s 22-match winning streak, drew away to Sevilla and beat them at home, and only lost to Barcelona on a goal scored in the dying seconds. Nuno has injected energy and enthusiasm into a young side, and has reached an immediate communion with Valencia’s fans that is reminiscent of that of Klopp at Dortmund, Simeone at Atletico, or Guardiola at Barcelona.
But perhaps the greatest signifier of Valencia’s rise from the ashes was the in the last week that Paco Alcacer had defied transfer interest from Liverpool and Tottenham to sign a new five-year contract with Valencia, with Lim attaching an €80 million buyout clause to the deal. Paco Alcacer is the crown jewel of Valencia’s academy: 21 years old, capable of playing anywhere on the forward line, he has drawn comparisons to a young David Villa, and has already earned a place in the Spanish National Team’s senior squad. He’s played for La Furia Roja five times, and scored thrice – all in European Championship Qualifiers. Last season, he scored seven goals in the Europa League, while this year he has eight goals and six assists in 22 games for Valencia. In years past, someone like Alcacer would have left Valencia early for the big guns of European football – a Chelsea or a Barcelona. His choosing to remain in Valencia long-term marks an enormous shift in the club’s position the European game: as one user on Twitter put it, “Valencia don’t play no more.”
That trend has been reinforced this week, with reports that Nicolas Otamendi has had a £60M buyout clause placed on his new contract – one that will also double his wages at the club. Interest had been noted from a number of Premier League teams, given his rapid rise through the ranks of both Valencia and Argentina. In years past, such a buyout clause and salary would not have been feasible for Valencia – players wouldn’t have agreed to it, and the club couldn’t have afforded such wages. Under Peter Lim, that looks to be changing.
Valencia were once one of the great clubs of Spanish football: the Mestalla was a ground that Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Atletico feared to play. Los Che had great success in Spain and Europe, and produced teams that were exciting and dynamic to watch. If the last four months are an indicator, the good times look to be on the way back. Long may they continue.