LIBERATING FOOTBALL TRAVEL

Valencia CF

Fiery Mestalla remains in place as Bats fly blind

A fan’s guide – the club from early doors to today

Arguably Spain’s most successful club outside of Madrid and Barcelona, winner of six league titles and four European trophies, Valencia Club de Fútbol marked their centenary under Marcelino. It was the spring of 2019. The popular manager, in tandem with his right-hand man Mateu Alemany, had revived ailing Valencia, gaining two consecutive Champions League qualifications and winning the Spanish Cup. 

Los Che had also reached the semi-final of the Europa League and, more than anything, had rediscovered the spirit that had lifted the club to two league titles and two Champions League finals two decades before. Back in the early 2000s, Valencia were on a par with, and occasionally superior to, Real Madrid and Barcelona. The Mestalla was in manic mode, the steep-sided cauldron of a stadium, almost as old as its tenants, fired up for thumping wins over Europe and Spain’s best.

Marcelino had got the Mestalla buzzing again. Then, on the eve of his club’s Champions League campaign in September 2019, Valencia’s capricious owner Peter Lim sacked him, unhappy with his manager for reasons unknown.

To their immense credit, the players rallied to beat Chelsea at Stamford Bridge and top their group that December. The following summer, the two players whose goals had propelled Valencia to the knock-out stage of the Champions League, teenage sensation Ferran Torres and mercurial fellow forward Rodrigo, were sold to England.

Valencia had finished out of the running at home and abroad, and little has changed since. When seeking reasons for the relative demise of once dominant Spanish club football, many point to the waning and departure of the once-in-a-lifetime superstars at Barcelona and Real. In truth, the strength of the league is in clubs such as Valencia, with a huge, passionate fan base, who can attract and keep some of the world’s finest players – and managers – to take on and beat Europe’s elite. 

Los Che last appeared in (and won) a European final in 2004, having just lifted the second of two titles in the contemporary era. Plans were being made for a new stadium. Now VCF are millions in debt, although plans for the Nou Mestalla have at least been presented – in June 2022. 

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. Incoming president Luis Casanova raised the club and the stadium from the ruins of the Civil War, recruited a number of talented Basque players who had been imprisoned in the city by Francoist forces, and began winning things. 

The most notable was Edmundo Suárez de Trabanco, Mundo to all, twice Pichichi and scorer of nearly a goal a game for his adopted club through the 1940s. He also became coach in 1964, by which time Valencia had brought in Brazilians Chicão and Waldo to win the Fairs’ Cup in 1962 and 1963. Los Ches were nothing if not high-scoring, putting six past a very capable Barcelona side in the first leg of the 1962 final. 

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 thanks to 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 in Brussels.

After another mediocre decade, the club picked up with the arrival of two prolific strikers from Eastern Europe, Bulgaria’s Luboslav Penev and Predrag Mijatović from Montenegro. The Partizan Belgrade forward could have chosen any number of top foreign clubs – influential Dutch coach Guus Hiddink persuaded him to come to Valencia.

By the time Paco Roig arrived as president in the mid-1990s, Valencia were very much on the up. Unveiling elaborate plans for expanding the Mestalla, Roig lifted the club onto another level – at a price. Perhaps his smartest move was to bring in Claudio Ranieri from Fiorentina. Under the kindly Italian coach, young players such as Argentine striker Claudio López and precocious midfielder Gaizka Mendieta became world-class.

It was Ranieri who sought out one of Spain’s finest keepers of the modern era, Santiago Cañizares, unhappy at Real Madrid, and galvanised an already solid defence. In Valencia’s run the Spanish Cup final in 1999, Ranieri’s team overcame Barcelona, pulverised Real Madrid 6-0 to swat aside Atlético Madrid 3-0 and take their first silverware for nearly 20 years. 

More was to follow under Argentine coach Hector Cúper, suggested by Ranieri before he departed for a ruinous spell at Atlético. Augmenting a promising side with four key compatriots – swift winger Kily González, deadly forward Pablo Aimar, and centre-backs Roberto Ayala and Mauricio Pellegrino – Cúper lead Valencia to two Champions League finals.

The first came in 2000, after Los Che had decimated Barcelona 4-1 in the Mestalla semi, but were out of their depth in the showdown against Real Madrid. A year later, Valencia took Bayern Munich to the wire in a game of 17 penalties and goalkeeping heroics from Cañizares and Oliver Kahn. It would be the German consoling the distraught Spaniard afterwards.

Rafael Benítez was the surprise replacement for Cúper. With little high-level playing or coaching experience behind him, leading Tenerife to promotion from the Segunda as Valencia came within a spot-kick of the Champions League in 2001, Benítez was not the first choice for the job. He brought with him striker Mista and signed Málaga winger Francisco Rufete. 

Earning the players’ trust, Benítez formed a consistent unit that went on to win two Spanish titles, in 2002 and 2004, the second accompanied by a UEFA Cup trophy. With the club now at elite level for the first time in its history, its directors decided on disappointing signings to start the 2004-05 campaign. Benítez left for Liverpool, the first Spaniard to manage in the Premier League, and Valencia have never come close to a title since.

Top players still beat a path to the Mestalla. Striker David Villa left Zaragoza to team up with former Real star Fernando Morientes, who had opened the scoring against Valencia in the 2000 Champions League Final. Coming through the ranks was supremely talented attacking midfielder David Silva and Juan Mata from Real Madrid’s youth side. 

These four kept Valencia in regular contention for European football, narrowly losing out to Chelsea in the Champions League quarter-final and winning the Copa del Rey in 2008. 

It was around this time that work started on the basic structure of the Nou Mestalla, the new stadium that would take Valencia from their downtown ground nearly a century old to a contemporary arena further out in Benicalap. With around €300 million to find during the credit crunch, the club lacked the wherewithal to finish the job.

Not for the want of trying. Silva, Villa and Mata were sold off to balance the books but thanks to the savvy coaching of relatively untried manager Unai Emery, Valencia continued to qualify for Europe and make significant progress despite significantly tightened purse strings. 

Finishing third three seasons running in what was then the world’s toughest league, Valencia reached the semi-final of the Europa League in 2012, after which Emery bailed, having had to patch up too many squads as talent drained from the Mestalla.

Despite overseeing one of the most exciting nights at the Mestalla, the 5-0 sinking of Basel in extra-time chasing a 0-3 deficit in Switzerland, coach Juan Antonio Pizzi became the first of a dozen-plus subsequent sackings engineered by incoming owner Peter Lim in 2014. Pizzi’s luck had deserted him in the next round of the Europa League, the semi-final settled by a 94th-minute header from Sevilla’s Stéphane Mbia that silenced the Mestalla and reversed the aggregate.

Around this time, Singaporean entrepreneur Lim had become the club’s majority shareholder, holding off creditors while trying to keep the club in contention. It was always going to be a tricky balancing act, although Lim hardly endeared himself to fans by hiring the likes of Gary Neville as manager – both are involved in Salford City and other major investments in Manchester – and rarely appearing before fans.

Within four months, Neville was out, a 0-7 cup defeat to Barcelona under his belt. His former assistant, and right-hand man to Benítez in the glory years, Pako Ayestarán duly steadied the ship into safe, mid-table waters. Within six months, he was sacked, Valencia lying bottom of the table. Italian Cesare Prandelli lasted ten games.

With relegation a real possibility far too often, a winning coaching team of Marcelino and Mateu Alemany was finally installed before the 2017-18 campaign. Star academy graduate Ferran Torres broke into the first team in November 2017, the same month that a now prolific Rodrigo signed a new deal with a huge release clause. Later Spanish international Carlos Soler established himself in the midfield.

At last, it seemed Valencia had turned the corner. A crucial win at Sevilla in the spring of 2018 not only pointed to Champions League qualification, it pushed Valencia into fourth place behind the big three of Real, Barça and Atlético, an elite it was once part of not too long ago. 

Despite beating Manchester United in the group stage, Marcelino’s men dropped into the Europa League, where wins over Celtic and Villarreal took them to a semi-final with Arsenal. Going ahead in both legs, Los Che succumbed to the superior firepower of Lacazette and Aubameyang, under the direction of Valencia’s former manager, Unai Emery. 

On the plus side, ahead lay a huge and ultimately successful scrap for a Champions League place – and the Copa del Rey. A Rodrigo goal doubling Valencia’s lead over Barcelona, Marcelino’s team duly lifted the club’s first major silverware since 2008.

Bringing young Uruguayan striker Maxi Gómez on board, Valencia seemed determined to make progress in Europe’s premier competition. This time, in a tricky group containing Chelsea, Ajax and Lille, they reached the knock-out stage – but not with manager Marcelino. Seemingly on a whim, Lim had sacked him just before the opening game with Chelsea, causing a huge furore among fans and players, who refused to take part in the pre-match press conference.

They proved their worth on the pitch, beating the Blues at Stamford Bridge thanks to a solitary strike from Rodrigo that would allow Valencia to top the group on their head-to-head record with Chelsea. But the wind had gone out of Valencia’s sails, leaving Los Che mired in mid-table and allowing fans to become even more imaginative with their protests. 

In 2022, having failed yet again to qualify for Europe, and long ago sold on Rodrigo and Ferran Torres, Valencia welcomed Celta Vigo to a near empty Mestalla as supporters had marched to the stadium en masse then simply stood outside it. 

Weeks earlier, though, they had been very much inside, passionately roaring on the team to overcome a Marcelino-led Athletic Bilbao in the semi-final of the Copa del Rey. Sadly, it was American teenage prodigy Yunus Musah who then missed his penalty in the subsequent shoot-out with eventual cup winners Betis.

Incoming coach Gennaro Gattuso now has an almighty task to lift the club in 2022-23 – though without the interference of recent club president Anil Murthy. Disparaging comments from this one-time Singaporean government diplomat had pleased neither fans, players nor, for once, Peter Lim. Few of the scores of Valencia employees sacked under his reign will have shed a tear.

Stadium Guide

The field of dreams – and the stands around it

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. Named after a canal that ran along the south side of the ground, the Mestalla replaced the Campo de Algirós, where the newly reformed VCF played from 1919. Today, this is the Calle de Finlandia, about 200 metres south of the Mestalla.

With a capacity of 17,000 as opposed to the 8,000 of its predecessor, and with wooden stands and even seats compared with stone steps, the Mestalla was already a class above. By 1925, it held its first international, Spain’s first win over Italy, and by 1927 it had been expanded to accommodate 25,000.

The next main renovation came under the astute, dedicated presidency of Luis Casanova, although his bid to prepare the Mestalla – which later took his name – for the European era was stalled by the flooding of the now barren Turia river in 1957. Valencia’s ground still held around 60,000 shortly before the floodlit Fairs Cup victories of the early 1960s.

Further rebuilding for the 1982 World Cup saw capacity reduced to 50,000, around the same as today’s 49,400, the difference now being the bright orange seats brought in when all were replaced in 2013-14. Shortly before his death in 1999, an ageing Luis Casanova insisted the stadium revert to its original name of Mestalla.

Valencia’s most passionate group of supporters, Los Yumos, occupy the Fondo Norte, the lower level of the steep, steep 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 sideline stands of along Avenida Aragón on the east and Avenida de Suecia on the west also rise up in several tiers, everyone crowded right over the pitch, squeezed in by the surrounding high-rises. All is open to the skies but for a single roof just about covering the top half of the main stand. Nothing feels corporate or sanitised, this is football as it should be experienced.

It may be a sobering thought to romantics who revere these old-school grounds in city centres, but 80% of the apartments that will be built here had already been sold by 2019. In all, 485 new homes will stand where a century of football was played out. 

The club having started construction of the Nou Mestalla in Benicalap before running out of credit, €172 million worth of structure was already in place around 2008-09. The advance sale of the properties where the old Mestalla now stands gave the green light to restart the project more than ten years later.  

Originally envisaged to accommodate 70,000 spectators, the arena will now host the same number as the old ground currently does, 49,000, although an extra ring can be added. Its roof covered in solar panels, the Nou Mestalla should be unveiled in the summer of 2025.

getting there

Going to the stadium – tips and timings

The Mestalla is close to Aragó metro station (green line 5), three stops and five minutes from Xàtiva  in town. After alighting, follow the signs and you’ll see it through the palm trees. 

Estadi De Mestalla also has its own bus stop, served by route 10 from Plaça de l’Ajuntament-Periodista Azzati in the city centre, eight stops/12-15mins away.

getting in

Buying tickets – when, where, how and how much

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 Plaça de l’Ajuntament 28, and online. Attendances are rarely above 40,000 unless Barça or Real are in town, so availability shouldn’t be a problem.

Prices are around €30-€35 behind Gol Gran or Gol Xicotet, €40 for the Grada Central and €50-€70 for the Tribuna Central, the best seats in the house. Note that Alto (‘High’) seats behind either goal will be very Alto indeed.

what to buy

Shirts, kits, merchandise and gifts

The club has two shops, one by the stadium on Plaza de Valencia CF (Mon-Sat 10am-8pm, Sun 10am-2pm & match days) and the city-centre Megastore (Mon-Sat 10am-9pm, Sun 11am-8pm) at Plaça de l’Ajuntament 28. 

First-choice shirts for 2022-23 retain a classic plain-white look, offset by the bright red, yellow and crown of Aragon – topped, of course, by a bat, also linked to King James I. Ghostly bat figures appear on the black away kit, with contrasting bright orange collar and cuffs. Third choice features the yellow-and-red stripes of Aragon, set against blue sleeves and shoulders. 

The stadium centenary is celebrated on T-shirts as 2023 comes around, and the Mestalla jigsaw-puzzle model might be a collector’s item by 2025 when the old ground won’t be there.

Stadium tours

Explore the ground inside and out

Before the stadium closes for good, hour-long Mestalla Forever tours (€11.50/€9 5-12s & over 65s) take place in English and Spanish every 30mins-1hr between 10.30am-7pm. In summer, visits are daily, more frequently Mon-Fri, in winter it’s Wed-Sun. Tours take in the home dressing rooms, players’ tunnel, press area and pitch, with no visits on match days.

Enter through Gate 3 on Avenida de Suecia. Book your slot online. Send all enquiries to tourmestalla@dtaocioyturismo.com.

Where to Drink

Pre-match beers for fans and casual visitors

Beside Aragó metro station, La Corona de Aragón is one of several on either side of Avinguda d’Aragó, a corner bar popular pre-match with fans who gather outside.

The real deal is round the corner, the bars on each side of Plaza de Valencia CF, at the corner of Avinguda de Suècia 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 once shared the square with the jewel in the crown, the Museo Deportivo de Manolo el del Bombo. This rather grand title was 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 was 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. 

With Manolo’s drum ever fainter these days and the Mestalla seeing its last days, Spain’s most famous football fan has cashed in his chips and the priceless memorabilia collated from a lifetime of football travel now forms the decor of a newer, stylish venue, the Bar Cervecería Splash, with more accent on better-quality snacks.

Fans also gather outside standard corner bar Cervecería Afición, where the square meets Avinguda de Suècia, and at El Palco just round  the corner on the avenue itself, where lunchtime paellas are popular through the week. Heading from this side of the square along Carrer de Misser Mascó, the terrace of the Bar Mestalla attracts a daytime crowd to dine on paella and offers quieter surroundings for a pre-match beer if that’s what you need.

Beside the club shop on the square, the Asociación Futbolistas Valencia CF is open to all, a two-room VCF-themed café-restaurant in sleek white with breakfast and lunchtime offers.