If anything sums up the wretched recent luck of former Spanish champions Valencia Club de Fútbol, it is the 94th-minute header by Stéphane Mbia that silenced the Mestalla and took their opponents Sevilla to the 2014 Europa League Final. Overcoming a 2-0 first-leg deficit to lead their compatriots 3-0 at home, Valencia were brought to their knees by the late, late strike.
Though qualified for the group stage of the Champions League in 2015-16, Valencia suffered an up-and-down season, underscored by the strange hiring of Gary Neville as coach. Within four months, he was out, a 0-7 cup defeat to Barcelona under his belt. His former assistant Pako Ayestarán steadied the ship into safe, mid-table waters.
‘Los Che’ last appeared (and won) a European final over a decade ago, when they had also won the second of two titles of the contemporary era. Plans were made for a new stadium. The club had to pay for the huge transfer fees and salaries that bought and kept the likes of Pablo Aimar and Roberto Ayala to best Spain’s best. Sitting on the valuable, downtown real estate the venerable Mestalla represents, Valencia planned for a Nou Mestalla and a prosperous future.
Ten years on, VCF are cash-strapped and no longer third in Spain’s traditional pecking order behind Barça and Real. How long this situation will continue now depends upon Singapore entrepreneur Peter Lim, who bought a majority shareholding in the club before the 2014-15 season.
Formed by foreign residents and students in 1902, Valencia were reformed in 1919 by members of a social circle who met at the Bar Torino on Plaza del Ayuntamiento.
Moving into the Mestalla stadium in 1923 and garnering silverware during the 1940s, Valencia were known as a high-scoring team with a devil-may-care attitude. With Brazilians Chicão and Waldo, Valencia won the Fairs’ Cup in 1962 and 1963.
To achieve success in the league, Valencia had to abandon their attacking principles. Under Alfredo di Stéfano in 1971, a cautious, defensive unit pipped Barcelona to the title with a lower ‘goals against’ tally. The next great Valencia side were headed by 1978 World Cup hero Mario Kempes. Valencia won the Spanish Cup in 1979, then the Cup Winners’ Cup a year later, beating Arsenal on penalties.
After another mediocre decade, the club were transformed when Paco Roig became president in the mid-1990s. Unveiling elaborate plans for expanding the Mestalla, and attracting top foreign stars, Roig lifted the club onto another level – at a price. Under coach Hector Cúper, swift Argentines such as Kily González and Claudio López complemented the home-grown talent of Gaizka Mendieta, backed by Santiago Cañizares in goal.
Valencia made two consecutive Champions League finals, both defeats, in 2000 and 2001. A rock-solid defence helped Valencia win the Spanish title in 2002 and 2004, doubling up to take the UEFA Cup against Olympique Marseille.
Severe financial difficulties and boardroom unrest then saw the club tread water, and shelve plans for a new stadium. Key players David Silva, David Villa and Juan Mata were sold off to balance the books. Los Che fell behind in the domestic pecking order, a fourth place in 2015 the best recent finish until repeated in 2018 under former Levante midfielder Marcelino.
Behind the scenes, stability is needed to see the new stadium project back on the agenda. Arriving in 2014, Singapore entrepreneur and majority shareholder Peter Lim has kept sacking managers and selling players to balance the books, but in young Santi Mina, Valencia have found a genuine scoring prospect. In a welcome return to the Champions League in 2018-19, Mina’s two goals against Young Boys saved face in a tricky group.
A classic, city-centre football temple, the steep-sided Mestalla was inaugurated on May 20 1923 with a match between newly founded Valencia CF and local rivals Levante. Renovated after the now barren Turia river flooded in 1957, the Mestalla was expanded to something around its current capacity of 55,000 shortly before the club’s successful European campaigns of the early 1960s.
Set beside a pedestrianised square of classic pre-match bars, the Mestalla is due to be knocked down to make way for the Nou Mestalla by Beniferri metro station.
Valencia’s most passionate group of supporters, Los Yumos, occupy the Fondo Norte, the lower level of the Gol Xicotet. Opposite is the Gol Gran. Visiting fans are allocated a section through gate N16 near Torre A on the diagonally opposite corner to the bars on Plaza de Valencia CF.
The Mestalla is close to Aragón metro station (green line 5) – follow the signs and you’ll see it through the palm trees. Bus No.10 runs from focal Plaza del Ayuntamiento.
The main ticket office (Mon-Fri 10am-2pm, 5pm-8pm, Sat 10am-2pm, 3hrs before kick-off) stands at the corner of the stadium opposite the bars on Plaza de Valencia CF. Tickets are also sold at the club shops, one on Plaza de Valencia CF and one in town at Pintor Sorolla 25. See the club website for details. Prices are around €40-€45 behind Gol Gran or Gol Xicotet, €50 for the Grada Central and €65-€90 for the Tribuna Central, the best seats in the house. Note that Alto (‘High’) seats behind either goal will be very Alto indeed.
The Templo del Fútbol main store (Mon-Sat 9.30am-2pm, 5pm-8pm and 3hrs before kick-off) is on Plaza de Valencia CF opposite the row of bars. A two-floor blaze of white, red and yellow merchandising, it’s complemented by the one downtown by the main Corte Inglés department store at Pintor Sorolla 25.
The 45-minute stadium tour (€7) takes place daily, hourly 10am-1pm and also Mon-Fri 5pm-7pm. English-speaking visitors must leave a deposit for the audio-guide. Tickets are sold at the club shop on Plaza de Valencia CF, the setting-off point.
Beside Aragón metro station, el donjuán is a chain of sleek bar-restaurants. The real deal is round the corner, a row of three bars on Plaza de Valencia CF, at the corner of Aviguda de Suécia five minutes’ walk away. First, Bar Cervecería La Deportiva displays classic Valencia teams through the ages (note the Keita-Catafau-Johnny Rep trio and a celebrating Kempes) and scarves dedicated to Bursaspor and Ally McCoist. Next, Bar Ciudad Real Tu Pequeño Mestalla is smaller but with wonderful framed black-and-white images of post-war Valencia line-ups.
It shares a large terrace with the jewel in the crown, the Museo Deportivo de Manolo el del Bombo. This rather grand title is the official name of the bar run by Manolo, the corpulent gent seen in the crowd at every World Cup beating a huge drum to cheer on his beloved Spain. This tiled masterpiece is a one-room pictorial history of Manolo’s football travels around the world. Note the photo of him with King Juán Carlos, the Spanish football badges round the bar counter and the collection of tickets and scarves. Opposite, beside the club shop, the Asociación Futbolistas Valencia CF is open to all, a two-room VCF-themed café-restaurant in sleek white with breakfast and lunchtime offers.