Andy Mitten

Valencia building new era – on the pitch

Andy Mitten

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Valencia play Atletico Madrid on Wednesday in one of the most intriguing ties in La Liga so far.

Los Che are the only club in Spain with a 100 per cent record after three games and they also destroyed Buraspor away in their opening Champions League match last week. Fans won't be getting too carried away as none of the vanquished sides (Malaga, Racing and Hercules) are expected to challenge for silverware this year, but a resurgent Atletico represent a true challenge.

Valencia fans could not have hoped for more after the turmoil which has enveloped the club last year and led to the city council providing an emergency loan to keep them in existence. That they held on to two of their many Davids (Silva and Villa) was a surprise, but they did well enough to finish third and reach the Champions League before their star pair were sold. The money will be used in part to chip away at their huge debts.

Giant cranes dominate Valencia, Spain's third biggest city of 800,000, like unwelcome guests. They mark the skyline above the construction site of the club's new 75,000-seater stadium, but the cranes haven't moved for 18 months.

Instead, they have stand idle, a metaphor for the fortunes of the football club which hopes to move into what will become one of the finest arenas in world football. Construction started in 2006 but stopped at the beginning of last year, when the builders downed tools after payments were not met.

There was a logic to Valencia's move. Spain's third most successful club after Barcelona and Real Madrid wanted to close the gap. They planned to sell their towering Mestalla home, itself one of the most historic and most atmospheric stadiums in sport with its sheer-sided stands.

No longer locked in a prime residential area close to the booming city centre, Valencia would make enough money to clear their debts and move into their smart new arena. The 20,000 extra seats and executive facilities to match the big two would realise extra revenues.

With a waiting list of 20,000 for season tickets their vision made sense at the time. A decade ago, Valencia embarked on a run which would see them reach consecutive Champions League finals and break the Barca-Madrid duopoly by winning La Liga twice in 2002 and 2004. They won the UEFA Cup in 2004 and were Champions League regulars, the 55,000-seat Mestalla usually full to capacity.

Coaches like Hector Cuper and Rafa Benitez were so highly regarded that they were poached by richer clubs, as were exciting players like Gaizka Mendieta and Kily Gonzalez.

Valencia didn't want to lose their best players and their desire to compete financially saw them embark on plans to build a bigger new home. Knowing that the football team was the biggest and potentially the best advert for the city, the local authorities were equally ambitious and gifted the club a plot of land close to the Mediterranean shoreline. Big on prestige, the city had already attracted an annual F1 race and hosted the Americas Cup.

A city which boasts the renowned architect Santiago Calatrava as one of its own was never going to settle for second best in design and fans were excited as their new home began to rise, a series of four concentric rings to be clad in a thrilling exterior. Architects said it would be as revolutionary at the Birds' Nest stadium which hosted the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Nor did Valencia want an out-of-town stadium. The 'New Mestalla' was to occupy the site of a former factory less than two miles from the city centre.

Construction started in August 2007 and the stadium was due to open in 2009 but there was only one problem - and a rather major one. Spain's property market was the hardest hit sector in the economic crisis and Valencia were unable to sell the Mestalla. Without those funds, they were couldn't pay for their new home.

Construction stopped and boardroom struggles and whiffs of corruption further undermined the club which lurched from crisis to crisis.

Facing meltdown, they were saved by a 90 million euro loan from the city council in the summer of 2009. They fortuitously managed to keep hold of their star players and performed admirably under coach Unai Emery, achieving a distant but credible third place.

Wholesale changes on the playing side in the summer left fans wondering how this season would start. So far it has gone well. Win against Atleti on Wednesday and Manchester United in the Champions League next week and you could make that very well.

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