The world, unfortunately for some, is soulless. It can be a harsh place to live, and even harder to understand. In many ways, however, science proves the truths of the world by using hypotheses and evidence to create the theories that have given us the modern environment in which we live. Maybe one day scientists will turn their attention to Valencia – a football club that could finally see them come unstuck.
It is 12 January 2019, the final day of the first half of the LaLiga season. Valencia, until then sentenced to the uneasy purgatory of 10th place – just a stone’s throw away from relegation – were in trouble. It looked as though their match against Valladolid was to be a performance typical of their struggles throughout the season, a result arduously laboured for against an inferior side. At least until the Pucelanos threw them a lifeline with a penalty.
Presented with a golden ticket, captain and penalty-taker Dani Parejo, with an excellent 18 goals in 22 previous attempts from the spot, ceded his routine duties to a desperate Rodrigo. The Rio-born Spanish striker had been a goal machine the previous season, but was approaching he-needs-a-goal-off-his-backside levels of desperation to find the back of the net. This was it.
Before the game, Rodrigo even admitted that he had been practising penalty-taking all week. But he plays for Valencia, and therefore Lady Luck wasn’t breathing down his neck as he placed the ball on the turf. Rodrigo struck the ball politely into the body of Jordi Masip, neither between the centre of the goal nor the right-hand post.
Manager Marcelino could barely watch, his hands falling out of his trouser pockets and covering his eyes, long enough for him to miss the rebound, duly saved by the goalkeeper. Shortly after, Santi Mina missed an open goal; the ball – somehow seemingly defying the laws of physics – passed through an impossibly small gap in his legs, clipped his foot and bounced out of play in a sequence that served to highlight the absurdity of their season thus far.
The Mestalla is a melting pot of fiery emotion and unwavering loyalty. Clichés of churches and cauldrons fill the footballing lexicon when talking about stadiums, but the Mestalla can trump them all. When the fans want to, they can convert the 50,000-seater arena, with its 4 stands towering over the pitch like a quartet of tidal waves, into an amphitheatre with the power to deafen, frighten and freeze anyone that doesn’t have the impermeable skin of an Andalusian warrior.
So, when Dani Parejo met the end of a neat cut-back from the right, directing the ball into the corner of the goal, the subsequent noise inside the Mestalla was nothing short of deafening.
Parejo was, for a long time, a rebellious figure in the dressing room of Los Che. Marcelino’s first decision as manager was to proclaim he didn’t need more than a sole source of anarchy in the squad. Thus, he chose not to exile the Madrileño midfielder but anoint him as the rebel king who would lead the Valencian revolution – a decision that saw the end to the revered penalty-saving king, Diego Alves.
Parejo took to the confident move by Marcelino perfectly, and has duly repaid the faith put in him with stellar performances for over a year, finally fulfilling the potential Spain knew was always there. Wheeling off into the stands after watching the net bulge, he could only muster the flailing arms celebration of pure ‘I don’t know what to do with myself’ emotion. It wasn’t only the noise: it was the relief of 50,000 ears popping all at once. Valencia could breathe, they were winning.
Perhaps it’s bad luck, or perhaps a divine spirit wanted Los Che to lose (as a few hardy fans suggested, tongue firmly in cheek), but as things go, it had to happen to Valencia. Valladolid’s Rubén Alcaraz wiggled the ball into the grass like a potted plant and strutted towards it from an angle that screamed only one thing into the ears of the fans: 30 metres from the goal-line, with the instep of his boot, he unapologetically struck the top corner with a ludicrous effort just ten minutes from the final whistle. The affair would finish 1-1 in a match that Marcelino had previously – and potentially fatefully – labelled “a must-win”.
The morning after, owner Peter Lim made a few phone calls and an emergency meeting was hastily arranged: club president Anil Murthy and director general Mateu Alemany were summoned on a flight to the Singaporean HQ of the business magnate. Marcelino’s head was to be put on the table.
From the start of the season until January, Los Che had drawn a staggering ten of their 17 games. “We get smacked in the face every time,” the forlorn manager sighed after the latest disappointment – and he was right. Valencia had started the season with a wobble and had been unable to balance themselves since.
Not only were they unable to pick up three points in any of their first six league games, they had lost the chance of European football for the season. Indeed, until November they were winless in the Champions League and now domestic success was the only way to guarantee continental football at the Mestalla.
Nearly 7,000 miles away, Lim had been worried but not stupid. Parejo’s celebration had culminated in an unambiguous embrace of Marcelino. The players’ position was clear: they opposed the change one would be naive not to expect. Rodrigo even went so far as to publicly acknowledge the situation around his boss’s tenure: “It wouldn’t be right to sack the manager,” he commented in the mixed zone after the game, “he can’t finish the chances for us.” Parejo’s tweet the following day only served as backup for the manager: “Nobody gives up here. I believe in this team.”
Sat ideologically alongside the squad, crucially, was director Alemany, who saw the change as unnecessary given such open positivity from the squad. In the crunch meeting of Valencia’s top dogs, it was decided – with Alemany’s input the key – that Marcelino’s head would be spared. In the modern age, the result is a remarkable one – one that would prove vital to the club in its centenary year.
The feeling of hope lasted for 40 minutes during the next game until Celta, with problems of their own, scored the first goal in an encounter against Valencia. A header into the far corner left fingers pointing as to who didn’t mark Néstor Araujo, and when Parejo’s effort to break the deadlock was subsequently parried away, Valencia went into the dressing room heads down, needing more than plain luck to turn it around.
Fortunately, they had Marcelino, who sent them back out unchanged and with only his half-time sermon ringing in the ears to either comfort or terrify them. At 61 minutes, he decided to make a change: Carlos Soler made way for young wide-man Ferran Torres, whose outside-of-the-boot effort just minutes after arriving onto the pitch gave Valencia fans the hope they craved.
If the penalty Rodrigo had missed a week earlier was an opportunity gone to waste, then he certainly didn’t let the next one slip. Parejo played in Kevin Gameiro who ran the ball down the right channel past the defensive line. Rodrigo edged nervously towards the goal and, after a low cross was played in, the ball bounced from his boot into the roof of the net. His face failed to hide the joy that comes with scoring an 84th-minute winner; the rest of the squad did hide their faces as they simultaneously fell to the floor: they had won. They had three points, all for Marcelino, whose smile was the biggest of them all. He knew how important this was.
And so began a run of ten consecutive league games in which Valencia went unbeaten. Wins against Real Madrid, Athletic and local rivals Villarreal sent shockwaves throughout LaLiga as Marcelino’s side hacked away at the table. It had nearly been nuclear destruction in the most sentimental season of them all – but not now. All of a sudden, after bullying both Getafe and Real Betis out of the cup, they had a Copa del Rey final to contest and Geta – shock performers of the season – finally succumbed to the altitude sickness of being in fourth place.
Humans manage to find coincidences in arbitrary elements of everyday life, the same life that had seemingly punished Valencia for having a football team. This time, the coincidence was hard to miss, as the opponent they were to face on the final day would be a certain Valladolid. An 87th-minute equaliser from Gerard Moreno meant Getafe finished the season on 59 points. If Valencia could win, they would reach 61 points and redemption from the earlier failings, securing European football for the coming season.
What was certain the last time the two sides met was that Valencia did more than they needed to secure the victory. Sometimes a bad day in the office is a sufficient go-to line from the team; sometimes it’s more nuanced than that. What was certain the second time they met was that whatever curse Los Che had picked up over Christmas was no more; two Valladolid defensive errors presented chances for Soler and Rodrigo that would surely have gone wide earlier on in the season. This time they didn’t.
In the end, they were two goals from six yards out – but nobody wearing white will care. The back of the met bulged both times and Valladolid – already safe from the drop and with nothing to play for – didn’t put up a fight like they did in January. In a theme for the post-Christmas season, the happiest man was the one who got to hug Marcelino first after the final whistle, his childish grin this time peeped over the shoulder of the in-form Rodrigo Moreno.
A month later, it was Geoffery Kondogbia who got the squeeze from his manager – and the midfielder chose to go one step further and lifted him aloft as he punched the Seville sky as Copa del Rey glory was confirmed. The captain, Parejo, now dressed in a purple vest over his shirt, had gone off injured for the French powerhouse after mishitting a free-kick and pulling a muscle. He was instead on his own, wiping a million tears from his reddening eyes as he struggled to hold back the emotions.
Just six months ago, a mid-table finish would have sufficed. Survival in the league had looked at one point like something that needed fighting, but they had so much more. Goals from Gameiro and Rodrigo stunned Barcelona in the final and gifted Valencia the perfect end to a wonderfully absurd season.
Parejo made the walk up the Estadio Benito Villamarín and shook hands with the president of the federation, Luis Rubiales, before shaking hands with the King of Spain. The trophy was his. We Are The Champions boomed out of the speakers as his teammates greeted their captain on the pitch, where the celebrations continued. As did the tears, clenched fists and flailing arms, showcasing the emotions of the crazy season they had just experienced.
Valencia were winners. In the coming season, a song will be played to remind the fans just that. Europe now beckons and they deserve it, from the squad to their still under-appreciated manager. Los Che waited 11 years to lift a trophy, and with that streak finally broken, maybe the Mestalla will fill up once again and find the voice that marks it out as splendidly unique.
By Joe Brennan @j4brennan