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100 years of Valencia at Mestalla: Real Madrid grudge, Benitez's glory & Vinicius Jr shame

My first memories of the Mestalla stadium go back to the 1995/1996 season when I first moved to Valencia in the late summer of 1995. I was based in the nearby barrio of Benimaclet, a studenty district of Valencia by the University and literally walking distance from what is now La Liga's oldest stadium in the top division.

As a 'TEFL' teacher from London, I had arrived in Spain weeks before with just 4 words of Spanish ("Si, No, Cerveza, Por favor"). The first night I ever went to a football match at Mestalla, Valencia happened to be playing against a little ole' club called Real Madrid.

As I made enquiries outside the stadium, asking at numerous gates about how to actually see the match... I had no success in getting a ticket and very little Spanish to speak of. As luck would have it, a policeman kindly lent me his ticket to gain entry at the final gate of my search to enter this hallowed 'estadio'. Finally, I had arrived at the Holy Grail of 'Mestalla.' Curiously, I was to find out years later that the only 'Holy Grail' recognized by the Vatican is actually to be found in Valencia Cathedral! For a Catholic country, a lot more people attend a football match than mass in Spain.

That night, I was in a cathedral of football. Once inside, it was nighttime and the atmosphere was electric. Mestalla was packed and the long history of rivalry was evident in the intensity of support for Valencia around the whole stadium. Luis Aragonés was Valencia's demanding manager and Valencia CF played with a verve and elasticity that was really memorable. The Brazilian Mazinho and Yugoslav Mijatović were a formidable force on the pitch and the team as a whole were dynamic to watch. Real Madrid had players of the calibre of Laudrup and Zamorano and even Raul (a mere teenager!) and notorious hard men like Hierro and Alkorta. However, Valencia's swashbuckling 'all for one and one for all' way of playing counter-attacking football was fluid and effective enough to topple Real Madrid… in an electric 4-3 victory for Valencia.

It's a match that I have never forgotten, for the way Valencia played and the passionate Spanish atmosphere I encountered there. Indeed, this match was no fluke, as Valencia went on to be worthy runners-up in La Liga of that famous 1995/1996 season when Atlético Madrid won the double.

Valencia's grudge with Real Madrid goes deep. Over the years, I have seen many matches at Mestalla with Valencia versus Real Madrid and when Los Che won; their matches would be celebrated like winning a cup. The resentment is typical of provincial footballing cities all over the world, the feeling that capital cities dominate politically and a football match is a perfect way of settling scores. However, being Spain, the rivalry also has political undertones going back to Franco and the dictatorship. There is a sense in Valencia that they are a conquered people, even their Valencian language was suppressed during the dictatorship when people were forced to learn and speak Castilian.

Within a few years of that promising 1995/1996 season, Valencia CF went from a team that almost won cups and titles…to actually winning some! At Mestalla in the 1998/1999 season, I witnessed Valencia overcome FC Barcelona in the quarter–finals of the El Copa del Rey (4-3) to then beating Real Madrid 6-0 in the semi-finals! A very determined Valencia side (under Ranieri) went on to win El Copa del Rey by beating Atlético Madrid 3-0, in Seville in 1999 at 'La Cartuja' and in impressive style too. I will never forget standing in the terraces behind the goal… as Gaizka Mendieta scored a Brazilian-style 'gol' that was out of this world. It was a long yet joyful coach trip back to Valencia.

More was to come at Mestalla as Champions League matches became a regular fixture. Amazingly, Valencia reached the Champions league finals twice in a row! Those heady Champions league nights at a buzzing Mestalla against legendary teams like Manchester United and FC Barcelona and Lazio are etched in the memory.

The Rafa Benítez reign at Valencia CF soon followed. Rather like the Maradona era at Napoli, Valencia ended up winning La Liga twice as well as the UEFA cup. Mestalla really was a fortress then. Valencia perhaps didn't actually have galácticos but they had players with experience and Benítez knew how to make the rotating team go like clockwork …with 2 players covering each position in the squad with aplomb.

My best memory of a euphoric 'Mestalla' in that period was Baraja scoring against Espanyol, after Carboni had been sent off in La Liga with just a few matches left in the season and everything to play for. There was the feeling that wining La Liga for the first time in 40 years was within reach for Valencia CF…and it proved to be so. As Xavi said about winning La Liga this 2022/ 2023 season with FC Barcelona, people don't realize just how difficult it is to win the League.

When Juan Bautista Soler took over as president as Valencia in 2004, Valencia CF had won so much and played so consistently that they were voted best club team in the world in that same year. Indeed, when I met Soler by chance at a Valencia museum 'do' and mentioned my support for Valencia CF… his words were: "You ain't seen nothing yet. Just you wait and see." Indeed, his words were to be prophetic but for the wrong reasons. Soler presented 'Nou Mestalla' in 2006 as a 5 star avant-garde stadium that was to be an icon for the city and one of the most advanced stadiums in the world. There was talk of it being a 72, 000 capacity stadium to fulfill the demand of those waiting years & years to be Valencia CF socios at Mestalla. Also, the local government boasted that 'Nou Mestalla' would be hosting a Champions League final in the near future. Somehow, this was a sure sign that this was a stadium that was making a mark on the world of football before it had even been finished!

Notoriously, 'Nou Mestalla' has never been completed. Irish writer Ian O'Leary commented in one of his novels that Valencia CF must be the only football club in the world that has 2 stadiums! Things went from bad to worse for Soler and he resigned as president of Valencia CF in 2008, citing ill health. By 2009, Valencia CF was 547 million euro in debt which forced the club to increase its capital in order to avoid going into insolvency proceedings for non-payment.

The years dragged on and 'Nou Mestalla' tragically was the scene of a number of construction workers falling to their deaths whilst working on building a new stadium…something that has become a 'White Elephant' for the club and the city.

Under Peter Lim's reign, nothing has improved and finishing 'Nou Mestalla' has become a game of cat and mouse with the local government as agreements are broken and deadlines not respected, in terms of getting the job done. The current local left-wing government have insisted that 'Nou Mestalla' has a polideportivo as part of the project for the local people of the barrio of Benicalap to enjoy and Lim does seem to have agreed to this. Also, the local government have insisted that 'Nou Mestalla' should have a larger capacity than the current Mestalla, which holds about 49,000 people.

The local government's insistence regarding this capacity issue is a reaction to Lim's cut-price or "cheapskate" approach of wanting 'Nou Mestalla' to have a similar capacity as the current Mestalla…to save money. Quite logically, the local government feels there is no point building a new stadium if it is not an improvement on the current one at Mestalla. At the moment, there is a "stalemate" situation with Valencia CF's Singapore owner and the more forward- thinking local government who want a stadium that is for the people and is truly a world class stadium too.

Given Valencia CF's current struggles in La Liga and the antipathy that Peter Lim has created with Valencia CF supporters over the years… from selling off key players to sacking good managers and also dragging his feet over 'Nou Mestalla'…it's a wonder if the stadium will ever be finished under his reign. It is more likely that he will, sooner or later, leave the club before the stadium is finished. The current rumour is that Lim's agent Mendes has advised him to sell the club.

Could Valencia CF become a future Manchester City or Newcastle United? It would need to be a new owner with a lot of resources and willing and ready to make Peter Lim a deal he can'trefuse and finish what could still be a world-class stadium for a city and club that has a long footballing history.

The fans deserve an owner that can show them the faith that they have shown Valencia CF over some turbulent decades. From Mestalla to Nou Mestalla? A week is a long time in football!

Indeed, this past weekend saw Valencia CF playing a league match against a Real Madrid side who were still hungover from being thrashed by Manchester City in the Champions league. Valencia are fighting against the real risk of relegation so had much more to play for in this La Ligaclash. For Real Madrid, this match was really more a way of retaining professional pride. Valencia CF scored in the first half and held on in injury time to eke out a 1-0 victory over 'Los Merengues'.

Tragically, this specific match was instantly notorious all around the word and for all the wrong reasons.Vinicius Jr of Real Madrid was subject to racist abuse before the match by a minority of Valencia 'fans' as the Real Madrid bus arrived at Mestalla. Also, in the second half, Vinicius bravely confronted some Valencia 'fans' on the terraces by the Valencia keeper's area…who were making monkey gestures and insults of "mono, mono"directed at the talented Brazilian player. Vinicius threatened to walk off the pitch and Ancelotti asked the referee that the match be stopped. For what seemed like an eternity, whether the match was to continue or not hung in the balance. Finally, Vinicius returned to the pitch with the aim of helping his team get at least an equalizer. Despite a number of clear scoring chances for Real Madrid, they were thwarted with some world-class saves by Valencia CF goalkeeper Mamardashvili. Sadly, Valencia CF won the match but little else.

Before the final whistle, Vinicius had been red carded for thwacking Valencia CF Hugo Duro in the face…who had been holding him by the neck as a notable ruckus broke out amongst players from both sides. As Vinicius walked off the pitch once again, all hell broke loose by the Valencia dug out as the Brazilian held out his hand with the figure of two and the other hand pointing to the ground as if to say "Valencia are going down to Division 2."

What could have been a beautiful match of football on a sunny Mediterranean day, turned ugly because there were a minority of fans who were prepared to specifically racially abuse Vinicius as if that gave Valencia CF some sort of advantage (as underdogs) in the match. Real Madrid are looking to condemn these actions as a hate crime, if possible.

In the post-match conference Ancelotti wrongly accused all of the Mestalla crowd as being racist and having chanted "mono, mono."Actually, what large parts of the home crowd had been singing at Vinicius is "tonto, tonto" which translates into English as "fool, fool."Ancelotti has since apologized in public for his slanderous and mistaken accusation.

Since this match had made the world news, Valencia CF have taken the swift action of banning for life the three young "fans" who very wrongly racially abused Vinicius in front of his very eyes. More than ever now, the Brazilian has become a hero around the world for his refusal to accept racism lying down.

Indeed, Vinicius has been suffering in stadiums in Spain for a long time…including at Mallorca and at Atlético Madrid and more 'estadios' too. It would seem that the match at Mestalla could well become a "before and after" moment regarding racial abuse in Spanish football. Luis Rubiales,President of the Royal Spanish Football Federation, has since gone on record to say "we do have a problem in Spanish football regarding racism."

Now that this latest incident regarding Vinicius at 'Mestalla' has become a talking point around the globe…hopefully something good can come out of it in Spanish football. Let's see if the powers-that-be in España truly realize that the world is watching. They need to take action right now to turn this sorry situation around as soon as is humanly possible and with real rigour too.

In a few years' time, Mestalla will be reduced to rubble when Valencia CF eventually move to 'Nou Mestalla.' However, it will be easier to erase the old stadium than change the behaviour of a minority that represents neither the vast majority of Valencians nor the Spanish people as a whole.

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Will McCarthy

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