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Apr 6, 2009

Valencia recovers its pulse

"Valencia is the land of the flowers, land of light, land of love" (lyrics from the song "Valencia", by De la Prada and Padilla).

The city of Valencia and its most popular football club, Valencia CF, can probably tell the story of Spain's recent monetary rise and subsequent financial collapse better than any other Spanish region or team.

Once a provincial capital with very few tourist attractions (the authentic paella, no less, and the San Juan feast with plenty of firecrackers and noise), Valencia made the most of the economic bonanza Spain went through between the late nineties and 2008. Its infrastructure was vastly improved (roads, trains, airport), and the city changed its face with the addition of several marquee locations (the amazing Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias or the L'assut de l'or Bridge are must-sees), most of them designed by local architecture genius Santiago Calatrava.

Valencia CF was already a team of large tradition in Spain, but their titles were precious few, most of them won back in the forties and fifties, with President Luis Casanova at the helm. With both the country and the city blooming, the football team refused to be left behind. In 1999, Claudio Ranieri led the club to win the Copa del Rey, their first silverware in twenty years, which started an amazing spell in which Valencia also won two Ligas (2002 and 2004), one UEFA Cup (2004), and got to the Champions League final in 2000 and 2001.

If you are not familiar with the demanding Valencia fans, you would think no supporter would ever complain during such a successful phase. You'd be wrong, as things were never easy for the gaffers in Valencia, even when the victories were piling up. Their supporters always want to win in style.

When you take into consideration that Claudio Ranieri, Hector Cúper and Rafael Benítez were prominently involved with the club in that spell, you can imagine that the fans' thirst for top class entertainment wasn't really satiated. Valencia became a top tier club through a very physical approach, based on an inexpugnable defence and a tireless midfield that scored more often than the strikers, with the exception of Claudio López.

Like their approach or not, the fact is that, by 2004, Valencia CF were serious contenders in every competition, and appeared to have conquered the unofficial title of "Third Spanish Club" in its own right. And then a certain Juan Bautista Soler became President.

Mr. Soler's negative impact on the club is beyond belief. He broke each and every sensible rule to running a club, starting with the lack of stability for the executives (an endless parade of sporting and medical directors, director generals, and coaches have worked for the club in the last five years), followed by amounting a huge level of debt (over €400m, not surprising when you continuously hire and fire all those executives and players) and obviously finishing with the chaotic management of the footballing aspects, the Ronald Koeman fiasco being the cherry on the cake.

In pure Spanish fashion, the solution for all these troubles was real estate. Inspired by other clubs (Florentino Pérez had pulled a similar stunt for Real Madrid a few years back), Soler designed an operation to sell the current Mestalla stadium for a stunning profit, and then move the team to a new, more modern, cheaper home already under construction.

Soler, just like many others in Valencia and the rest of the country, did not see the real estate crisis coming. And once it came, he did not think it would last long.

Finally, he understood he had no way of selling the current stadium nor finishing the new one, and decided to quit. The following three presidents (Morera, Villalonga and Soriano) promised several measures but delivered none, and eventually the club stopped paying the players and most of its creditors.

At that point, during the last week of March, it seemed impossible for Valencia to get out of the hole without selling their best players, David Villa (with several proposals in England and Spain) and David Silva (linked to Italy's Juventus and also Liverpool). The team had gone six matches without a win, and the near future looked bleak, especially if they had to sell their best two players.

Then Bancaja, the regional savings bank and Valencia's largest creditor, decided to take over and appointed a new CEO, Javier Gómez, who gained management responsibilities over those of the current President, Soriano. Fortunately for Valencia, Gómez has done more in two weeks than the combined last four presidents have in two years. Last week the club obtained a €50m loan from a local company that will cover the players' salaries and the debt with the construction company that's building the new stadium. The club also announced a €92m capital increase to be done in June.

Their money issues are still far from being solved, but the impact of the good news is already apparent. "We feel relieved", said Villa before Sunday's match. They finally looked like their old selves on the pitch, in a 4-1 win over a relegation-threatened Getafe. Raul Albiol's final goal, an unprecedented strike from over 20 yards, appears like a good omen for the "Ches" and the team are now just two points behind Villarreal and should fight for a Champions League spot.

Both sides will thank rivals Atlético for yet another surreal defensive display in their 2-4 home defeat to Osasuna. José Antonio Camacho's team have grown remarkably during the second half of the season, and their Iranian duo (Nekounam and ball magician Masoud) are hugely entertaining to watch. Unluckily for them, their calendar is the most difficult together with Mallorca's, as both clubs will have to play all of Barcelona, Real Madrid and Sevilla before the end of the season.

In other matches, all the top three teams won 0-1 away from home, which maintains the status quo with one match less to go. Barcelona and Villarreal (missing injured Santiago Cazorla) will play Bayern Munich and Arsenal respectively in the Champions League quarter-finals in midweek.

But the real fun is at the bottom. Last-place Espanyol managed to win on Sunday, so literally any team between the 11th and the 20th can go down. The stereotypical "every match is a final" has actually become true, and there's nine weeks full of finals before us. Let's enjoy it while it lasts.

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