Being ‘Los Ches’ and a Valencianista

24th May 2000 – Stade de France, Saint-Denis, Paris- European Champions League final. Valencia CF was humiliated by bitter rivals Real Madrid CF 3-0 in a scoreline which flattered the victors. Morientes woved his usual magic, Macca doubled the misery whereas Raul shattered the ‘Los Ches’ faithful with a sublime 3rd goal to clinch Real Madrid’s eighth CL title in history. Master tactician Hector Cuper dejected but Valencia stood in the UCL limelight for the first time in the glittering tournament’s history.A telling final which made the neutrals moan and forget in a huff.  
 
23rd May 2001 – San Siro/Stadio Giuseppe Meazza, Milan – One year later, Valencia CF had another shot at glory. This time, a mediocre Bayern Munchen side dealt punishment to ‘Los Ches’ by beating them on penalties. Mendieta’s early successful penalty was cancelled out by Effenberg (The Ugly Bavarian Monster Girl) not long after the half-time break. Experience at the big stage was lacking and the Jerries had it in spades, with Kahn the Robot at the peak of his powers, what can deny them their 4th title? Canizares the psychopath cried like a baby on the pitch after the match and was inconsolable. Other white shirts did not fare better mentally but credit to Bayern and their determination. A moderate-standard final but one which Valencia CF may never reach again with this current crop. Canizares just knew this…the psychopath. But I was smitten by the style of the white-blacks and that was what matters.  
 
When I first mentioned that I’m a huge supporter of Valencia CF to an ex-Spanish colleague, his reaction was one of someone rushing to choke in response to amusement. Raul (his name) had his reasons, but obvious ones. The team has underachieved time and time again, with probably Bayer Leverkusen of Germany claiming the title of being perennial bridesmaid to major European titles so it’s plain that Valencia CF was never in the minds of anyone I’ve ever spoken to. Hearing that he was an Atletico Madrid supporter yielded more interesting subjects of the La Liga not previously known even in ‘Soccernet’. But we had a common enemy:- Real Madrid and further get this- so is everyone else in Spain other than the capital folks. And that Atletico Madrid is the Basque-run club which does not have the closed-door policy on signing non-Basque players, staff etc. which Atletic Bilbao is currently doing. That is ‘regional’ Spain for you. 
 
I’m an Arsenal fan since 1992 but it was Valencia CF that garnered my interest in the 1998/1999 season, the one after the World Cup. The two European Champions League finals demonstrated players like Miroslav Djukic as a rarity as would Jocelyn Angloma (noticed how the French guys often have female names) while Gaizka Mendieta and Claudio ‘El Piojo’ Lopez top the list of the stars then. Others like Goran Vlaovic, Adrian ilie and Joachim Bjorklund also make for an unfamiliar read but they played the main characters well.
 
Their style of play then under Hector Cuper strikes a familiar chord in the tune of Arsene Wenger’s master plans but the wily Argentine has brought his fellow compatriot Kily Gonzalez to the club and played quick one-touch football which Arsenal FC was doing. At first glance, it appeared like I was bewitched by Cuper’s style, but the club proved me wrong from time to time and showed how they can be crowned best club in the world in 2004/2005.
 
I cannot recall how Cuper was ejected from the hotseat at Valencia but I eyed his replacement critically. Rafa Benitez was a virtual unknown at that time- a nobody and fresh from a managerial stint at Tenerife (you guys can probably recall Roy Makaay playing at the Canary Islands club in the 1998/1999 season, in case the club does not ring a bell.) He recruited his choice players at that time on a budget which put Real Madrid to shame (Carlos Marchena, Curro Torres, Salva Ballesta, Gonzalo de los Santos (Arsenal’s midfield target back in January 2006), and the wizard right winger Rufete. Add Pablo Aimar to the equation and then he showed the white-blacks the way to the title after 31 years. The 2001/2002 season left a deep impression like no other. 
 
The tight, cohesive spine whch ran through the team, from Mista (or Adrian Ilie, or unlikely John Carew), to his winger deputies in Vicente Rodriguez and Rufete (or Miguel Angulo), straight to the midfield pit bosses, David Albelda and Generalissimo Ruben Baraja or with ‘El Payaso’ Aimar and head on to the rock in defence, Marchena and the irreplaceable Fabian Ayala (he hates being called Roberto and that makes two of us) and capable fullbacks in the ancient Amedeo Carboni and the consistent Curro Torres and into the goalmouth with the psychopath Santiago Canizares whose crazy form saved the team at times. Valencia CF ended the season at La Rosaleda in Malaga with 7 points to spare above Deportivo la Coruna and nine points above Real Madrid.
 
Valencia’s success was not owed to personnel with big names. Aside from the goalkeeper to Ayala, I can sanction a guess that no one has bothered about those aforementioned players much. Rufete? He was also a virtual unknown at that time when he arrived. Miroslav Djukic was still there then, but his aging bones could not tolerate 90 minutes of abuse as would Carboni. Vicente was quite a great player then (as is now) but he had his critics who reminded him how great his predecessor (Kily Gonzalez) in the same position was. But there was Rafa Benitez whose magic never wanes. Liverpool FC’s phenomenal comeback against Milan last year is nothing short of miraculous and sensational with Benitez at the helm. Pretty much sums those victories up nicely there. (when Valencia CF announced Claudio Ranieri as his successor, I predicted that the team would falter under the fickle Italian fiasco and I had CR to thank me for proving me correct.)
 
A lacklustre season in 2002/2003 saw Valencia dropped to fifth in La Liga (but still above Barcelona) with virtually the same personnel. It was a prelude for greater things to come, though. The 2003/2004 season was a close race with Barcelona to the title with the usual contenders Deportivo Coruna and Real Madrid in with a chance. Valencia lost 7 games in all that season but capped the victory with the capture of the lesser-known UEFA Cup in Sweden. Can’t hardly comment about their performance then. In the UK, the focus was on their own English leagues, so I hardly came across much coverage of La Liga and did not follow-up the Valencianistas to their second league triumph under Benitez.
 
Then Benitez was gone from the club. He cited club unrest and poor support for his position as reasons, but I knew that a fresh challenge beckons in the form of Liverpool. And why not let him try…a good stint abroad is what he needed then anyway, not prove himself further in La Liga where he had nothing more to show.
 
His replacement was Claudio Ranieri who has coached Valencia back in 1998 before Cuper. His management started well with the Euro Supercup victory. It was a fine win over Porto but I can detect cracks in the oft-porous defence in the 2004/2005 season. Ranieri roped in his fellow Italians to the club.
 
 It proved a disgusting affair. Italian style of football is world-famous for inducing sleep for insomnia-suffering football fans and I can’t say I favored his selection much.
 
 Di Vaio sounded fine to me but his goal-prowess occurred to me as predictable and straight-forward, often with a well-directed header or a lone foot extended out to guide the ball to goal. Simple but that is NOT how Valencia plays. But how about Stefano Fiore? He had a gifted vision for a good pass but truth be known, he can skip like a nancy boy all day for all I care back in the Serie A but his pace meant that he cannot dislodge Rufete in the right wing and his centre midfield skills cannot match those of Baraja or Albelda. Making it clearly, Ranieri buys according to names, not form nor talent. And why did he bother to nudge Moretti into the left wing position? Vicente may have been injured for a good part of the season but I’d have Fabio Aurelio on the left wing anyday. So Ranieri destroyed the Valencia team which have to be satisfied with a seventh position in La Liga and pick up the pieces of a poor season by their standards. If Ranieri wishes to destroy more club teams, he could reapply for the Chelsea job and football fans around the world may some day worship him as God in the future for saving football from some of its worst seasons yet. I was on the side of Liverpool (even when I was a neutral spectator) when they met Chelsea on the 8th day of the Lunar New Year but was sickened at how low some players can go just to see another professional colleague get the red. Guess Robben can expect a sizzling reception when Anfield welcomes Chelski next season for another league showdown and Pepe Reina can get another crack at practicing for his chiropractic degree on the shameless Dutchman till then. Hey, Robben may even send Reina a Xmas card for easing him of a severe crick in the neck which Chelski’s physios can’t even help soothe and is eagerly arranging another session with the talented Spaniard.
 
There you have it, Valencia CF as how I see it in the past 8 years. Their players may demand nothing of the wage structure close to Chelski’s but the Valencian spirit of stubborn resistance impressed me immeasurably. So far, their new season has seen them rise to second in the La Liga as of this writing, with a game at home in the Mestalla against Barcelona soon. Go on Valencianistas and whup the Catalans to prevent La Liga looking like EPL day by day! 
   

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