From Mestalla to Nou Mestalla?
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 euros 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’t refuse 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!
Report by Will McCarthy
Article copyright ‘24/7 Valencia’