Those who have played for Valencia will tell you that from just sticking their head out of the dressing-room door, the Mestalla roar could swoop up the tunnel and leave them trembling inside. It’s a roar that ensures that, even with the passing of the years, there are matches that remain so fresh in the mind that they could have happened yesterday; unforgettable atmospheres for the Champions League semi-finals against Barcelona (2000) and Leeds United (2001). Those of us lucky to have lived those nights on Mestalla’s steep stands still remember the shouts of thousands of Valencianistas: “Sí, sí, sí… nos vamos a París” and “Nano, nano, nano… nos vamos a Milano.”
Luck may have deserted Valencia in the two finals that followed, but at least we were there. As Don Jesús Barrachina, the club’s former vice-president, would say with the knowledge and reason of somebody who lived a long and full life: “The Champions League is the ultimate. Where were the rest of you?”
The match against Leeds was Juan Sánchez’s big night. For a long time the photo of him celebrating the first of his two goals was the wallpaper on our office computers at the paper where I worked, Superdeporte. I’ve still got my accreditation from that night. Writing this 18 years on, I can feel the emotion of that celebration: the hugs with friends and strangers; the thousands of shreds of paper swirling, confetti-like, in the night sky; scarves and flags being twirled like crazy. Not one of the 53,000 who filled the ground that evening remained in their seat for more than a minute. We were bouncing and singing. Many of us shed tears of joy. The cement of the old stands shook like a bowl of jelly as we celebrated Sánchez and Gaizka Mendieta’s goals.
For the uninitiated, Valencia is Spain’s third-biggest city, its population numbering around 780,000. With its climate (sunshine for more than 300 days a year) and topography (it’s pretty flat), it’s an easy place to get around on foot. As a result, on the day of a game you’ll find thousands of fans strolling towards Mestalla. These walks form part of the ritual: a moment shared between friends, between fathers and sons. A fan’s version of the warm-up. From leaving home to reaching the ground, the talk is of football, the opposition, the starting XI. That night the talk was of Harte, Viduka, Kewell and Ferdinand. Of Aimar, Kily, Carew and Ayala.
This matchday ritual has been taking place since 1923, the year of the inauguration of the oldest stadium in Spain’s top division. We’ve actually been saying goodbye to Mestalla for more than a decade now, since the club announced plans to build a new stadium in 2006. Yet the old ground is still standing today, on the same piece of land that Valencia bought for precisely 588,303.20 pesetas (or €3,500) back in the 1920s – and that today they hope to sell for €140m. In reality there is still no timescale in place for its demolition. Work on the new ground stopped in 2009, with only the concrete shell completed. And until the building work is done, Mestalla will remain Valencia’s home.
The stroll to Mestalla concludes at the Plaza de la Afición, a meeting place where the team bus arrives. This is where the players receive the first transfer of energy from the public, where they can sense what the club they represent really means to Valencianistas. Valencianistas such as the late Vicente Aparicio, a season-ticket holder who continued to attend games despite going blind and now has a statue in the stands in his honour.
The scale of the reception is a barometer for the feeling the players can expect inside the ground. The bigger the rival, the bigger the show of support – and the higher the stakes. That evening of 8 May 2001, thousands were waiting for the team bus, which travelled the final 100 metres at a snail’s pace so as not to bump anybody in the massed crowd.
If today’s Valencia players raise their gaze when stepping off the bus they can see the faces of their forebears, those players who, through their deeds in the white shirt, became club legends; men such as Mario Kempes. The Mestalla’s four sides act as a photo exhibition of 100 years of the club: the 21 major trophies and the great names, from Montes (the club’s first international and scorer of the first goal at Mestalla) to Parejo, via Puchades, Claramunt, Wilkes, Villa and Silva – not to mention coaches such as Di Stéfano and Rafa Benítez. And, rightly, there is also the team that made so many of us dream, twice, of becoming European champions: Mendieta, Albelda, Cañizares, Baraja, Aimar, Ayala, Kily, Vicente, Angulo… All are honoured on the Mestalla walls, together with their coach Héctor Cúper.
As for the fans, they tend to gather in the bars around the stadium, staying there until close to kick-off, which means there are few seats filled when the players step onto the field before getting changed. That means they can see the giant black bat, symbol of both the city and club, that is painted across the seats of the Grada de la Mar, the largest of the four stands. When I close my eyes and think of some of the tifos that have illuminated Mestalla, one in particular remains seared on my mind: that of that May semi-final night in 2001, a 20m-high Champions League ball made up of black and white cards. It is those cards that were torn up and flung into the air to accompany each goal. I can still see the ball and the slogan, “Traédla”: bring it home.
“A por ellos, oe; a por ellos, oe,” was the cry rolling around the whole ground, across those stands, which are steep like few others in Spanish football, leaving the players down on the pitch feeling there’s no way out. Such is Mestalla’s design that the players can hear every shout from the crowd, from each corner of the ground; it’s an intimacy that pushes players on, as well as affecting the opposition. That’s the case for any game, so just imagine the added emotional punch of a Champions League semi-final. All of us who hold the old place dear would love more nights like that before we say goodbye to our beloved stadium. That’s the wish: to hear Mestalla roar like that once more.