Not many gave Valencia a chance for the Spanish title at the start, writes Jeremy Lim, but the club could now be on the verge of achieving something historic in their first season under Peter Lim.
Step aside, Cristiano Ronaldo. The best player in the world had jogged onto the Mestalla pitch that January evening, right arm outstretched to receive the congratulations from the Valencia guard of honour set up for Real Madrid, the best club in the world. But there were no doubts amongst the home fans who the biggest name in town was. Earlier, Valencia owner Peter Lim had emerged to an ovation from the crowd, and the cameras followed him as he went to take his place for the match.
Then it was the team’s turn. By the end of the day, Valencia cemented their status as the biggest club in town, beating Madrid 2-1. Soon, the re-emerging powerhouse in Spain could become bigger still. 2015 started with them defeating the European and world champions. And it might just finish in silverware, in the form of an unprecedented La Liga title. The team are soaring in third, only eight points behind leaders Barcelona. It’s as if they have been lifted up on the wings of the Valencia bat, displayed proudly on the club’s badge.
More than 10 years have passed since Rafael Benitez led them to win the league. A procession of coaches had passed through the club since, failing to repeat the feat. A sequel to the triumphant 2003-04 season has been a decade in the waiting, hopes fading. Now, 10 games to the end of the season could erase that hurt. Atletico Madrid already came along last season and showed that Barcelona and Real Madrid can be challenged, beaten too. The duopoly had started this campaign as overwhelming favourites to take back the league, but have insofar failed to vanish over Valencia’s horizon. Unlike Lim.
The Singaporean billionaire has had new reason to smile and wave as the club he purchased and promised to clear €230m of debt for dispensed with their eternal rivals Madrid in January. Later, he disappeared as quickly as he had appeared, whisked away in a private jet that has been emblazoned with the Valencia crest. His impact, on the other hand, remains permanent and visible. The dream that, together, the club could soon be at the front leading the pack, hasn’t gone either.
It began against Real Madrid and continued with Valencia earning 29 points out of a possible 36 this year. The threat of another royal upset in this season’s title race has been looming, this time from the Mestalla. When playing at their scintillating best, with pace, power and panache, the side can appear as sharp as the suiting of their coach, Nuno Espirito Gomes. It’s as if they have been lifted up on the wings of the Valencia bat, displayed proudly on the club’s badge.
January arrival Enzo Perez spoke of being ‘seduced’ by their desire and the prestige of representing them when he joined. The €25m buy took Valencia’s spending in Lim’s first season over €100m, the mark of super-agent Jorge Mendes evident in much of their transfer business.
A rising power
Not every signing under Lim had been box office like Perez or Alvaro Negredo, but to focus on that is to miss the point. The esteem fans hold their owner in has not just been bought, but earned. They are convinced of his sincerity; that he will fight for and defend their club. “It is very important for Spanish football that credible investors such as Peter Lim come in to challenge Barcelona and Real Madrid,” Mendes said. “The decision to invest in a football club was purely Peter’s personal choice. He is a very intelligent man who has a good eye for talent.”
Valencia have built accordingly, bringing aboard hungry players to refresh a team that had lain stagnant for years. Signings like Nicolas Otamendi, whose comparisons to predecessor Roberto Ayala seem hasty but serve to reflect the growing enthusiasm in the stands, promise a return to better times. They are those who have made an impact this season and have been impacted in return, awed by the size of the club and its community. The new faces who observed the city’s Fallas commemoration of Saint Joseph for the first time in March were notable, breakout stars Andre Gomes, Shkodran Mustafi and Lucas Orban videoed immersing themselves in the festivities.
Similarly notable were the key men who had been around to see it all before. Diego Alves, Daniel Parejo, Pablo Piatti, Sofiane Feghouli and Paco Alcacer are the new core of the club - an outcome that used to be far from certain. Unai Emery led them to third place in La Liga in 2012, but they had been made to feel as good as finishing last after being vilified by their own supporters. Their crime? Being too apathetic and quick to embrace mediocrity.
Former icons of Valencia often speak about a pressure and expectation that can be brutal. So it is even more remarkable that Nuno, a relative newcomer to coaching, has brought the fans on board and stabilised the ship. The 41-year-old - not just another Mendes man, but the agent’s first man - has given Valencia the clean slate it sought to erase the sins of the past. Change under the Portuguese has been profound.
“We’re with him to the death,” Parejo, the club captain who has grown up and now knows who he is, said, revealing little yet revealing it all. Right now, they’re with Nuno all right, only eight points away from leadership of the league. The initial fears have been allayed; the uncertainties, banished. Nuno demands an intensity from his side that has been the transition from ambling to ambitious. “I’d describe Valencia as having an incredible desire to grow. The tools to win are there,” the architect of their rebirth stated.