With tears in his eyes, Dani Parejo, the club’s captain, addresses supporters at full time: “We won on the pitch, you won in the stands.”
Barcelona’s four-year grip on the Copa Del Rey trophy was no more after a 2-1 defeat in Seville.
Prior to kick-off, Valencia fans had arrived at the stadium two hours early to support their side. Final appearances had become few and far between. In contrast, Barcelona’s fans had been here before, almost routinely over previous seasons. For them, this was a precession; for Valencia, a chance to take a notch off of one of Spain’s two mammoth clubs. For too long they have been well ahead of the chasing pack, only kept in check occasionally by Diego Simeone’s Atlético Madrid.
Valencia supporters would celebrate long into the night after 11 years starved of success. Holding this decade’s trophy haul up against the previous decade’s would be nothing short of embarrassing for one of Spain’s most prestigious clubs. Therefore, last season’s Copa Del Rey trophy, appropriately won on the club’s centenary year, stopped the bleeding of a great footballing institution and allowed fans to exert a sigh of relief.
Valencia supporters would do well not to cast their memory back to the turn of the century, where a Copa Del Rey win ended a long spell in the trophy-less abyss and ignited their greatest era. Their Copa Del Rey final win against Atlético Madrid in 1999 signalled the beginning of one of the club’s most illustrious stretches. Within five years, Valencia would appear in multiple finals, albeit across three different managerial reigns.
Claudio Ranieri had taken charge of Valencia in 1997 and inherited a team in the bottom half of the table. By 1999 he had guided Valencia to Champions League qualification as well as a Copa Del Rey triumph that saw their free-scoring attack put seven past both Barcelona and Real Madrid on their way to the final. His meticulously assembled 4-4-2 line-up bred devastating counter-attacking play along with a disciplined defence.
Ranieri’s tenure at Valencia, albeit brief, laid the groundwork that future managers would reap the reward of. He would head for the Spanish capital at the end of the 1999 season to take over at Atlético Madrid. Héctor Cúper would take the hot seat in Valencia on the back of a season where he guided a modest Mallorca side to a third-place finish and Champions League qualification.
Under Cúper, Valencia would make it to the Champions League final in 2000, suffering a 3-0 defeat to Real Madrid in the first Champions League/European Cup Final to feature two teams from the same country. The following year, Valencia would climb back to the peak of club football only to be knocked down once again, losing on penalties to Bayern Munich. Cúper would maintain his unfortunate reputation in Spain as the manager who couldn’t win a final.
Domestically, however, Cúper could not produce the same results. A respectable third-place finish in his first season was undone by a fifth-placed one in the following campaign and with it no invitation to Europe’s top club competition. For Valencia supporters, the longing for a league title eclipsed everything else; Cúper’s European ventures, although magical, couldn’t satisfy this domestic appetite.
Cúper would depart for Inter Milan as Rafael Benítez, who had just achieved promotion with Tenerife the previous season, took charge for the 2001/02 campaign. A turbulent beginning amid questions over a lack of experience was quickly stifled, as fans became increasingly consumed by Benitez’s avant-garde approach and gritty mentality. Gone were the days of outscoring opponents, clean sheets and defensive solidity quickly became the benchmark.
In his first season, the man from Madrid gifted the Valencians what they had been craving. A title-winning team that scored just 51 league goals could not be envisioned, yet so was conceding just 27 league goals in a season. Benitez had guided Valencia to the La Liga title for the first time in 30 years, sending shockwaves of nostalgia through Valencian streets where the memory of being at the top of Spanish club football had begun to flicker and fade.
In fact, in the 17 preceding seasons, Atlético Madrid and Deportivo La Coruña were the only two teams to stall the Barcelona and Real Madrid title monopoly. Valencia would be added to this list, defeating both at the Mestalla on their way to lifting the La Liga trophy.
Benitez had broken ground with an unorthodox style of football that brought success. Over the course of a season, Valencia looked difficult to topple in a war of attrition, capable of digging in for hard-fought victories when it mattered.
The following season played perfectly into the narrative of many that Valencia could not possibly defend their title. Buried within a busy European schedule, Valencia could only muster a fifth-place finish. Real Madrid’s Galácticos had reclaimed their throne.
The 2003/04 campaign saw Valencia veer away from the Benitez blueprint and score a staggering 71 league goals as they reclaimed their title. Many of the core players had remained at the club from the first title-winning season. Although impossible to match the wealth and status of Barcelona or Real, the fact that Valencia were continuously placing themselves in the conversation was noble in its own efficient way.
The trophy hunt did not end there. Valencia would do the double that season and win the UEFA Cup, beating Marseille 2-0 in Gothenburg. Valencians were living in a perpetual dreamland, where European and domestic success overlapped.
Benitez would depart for Liverpool in the summer of 2004 and although, since then, Valencia has had a number of satisfactory seasons, there has been an obvious gulf in quality and lack of genuine threat to Spain’s superpower duopoly. Despite winning the Copa Del Rey in 2008, some poor La Liga finishes – consecutive twelfth-placed finishes in 2016 and 2017, have knocked the club’s reputation and direction. Inconsistency and self-inflicted damage via questionable decisions and appointments placed the club further than ever from challenging on any front.
A year after Valencia’s 2008 Copa Del Rey victory, the club had to suspend construction on its new stadium, the Nuevo Mestalla (New Mestalla). The global recession caused a collapse of the agreement between the club, the construction companies and the local regional government. In the following years, Valencia fans had to painfully look on as star players were sold to limit their colossal debt – David Villa, David Silva and Juan Mata were just a few of the sacrifices made.
Bizarrely, and yet in sync with the laughable direction that the club was heading, Valencia employed four people to pretend to work on the partly constructed 61,500-seat stadium. This was in order to prevent the authorities from taking the stadium off the club as, under Spanish law, the stadium could be confiscated if no construction was being carried out.
However, as of this year, a plan has been outlined that will see Valencia finally move to their new stadium within the next four years, hopefully bringing an end to an embarrassing ordeal that has run parallel to their trophy-less period.
Over previous seasons Valencia would prioritise European competition over domestic challenges as it was more often than not an easier path to winning something. The task of bridging the gap with the big teams seemed too daunting, especially when the other teams have a financial head start. Last season Valencia was awarded €65.7 in TV money after qualifying for the Champions League, less than half of the two clubs that they have been unofficially tasked with pursuing every season. To place in perspective, Huddersfield Town in the English Premier League received €109.5 million for finishing last in the league. This skewed financial position only highlights the sheer significance of every bit of silverware Valencia can get their hands on.
Looking into the future, Valencia fans will be hoping that their team can use last season’s Copa Del Rey triumph as a springboard to future success. Just as two decades ago, nobody will have Valencia as favourites to pip Barcelona, Real or now Atlético to any of the domestic trophies – especially as those three aforementioned clubs have recently polished off their squad’s courtesy of a cash frenzied summer transfer window.
Instead, a closer contest is to be expected by a club who looks to place the previous barren decade in their otherwise distinguished history book. Who knows, perhaps those fruitful years of the early 2000s lie just ahead of them once again.
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