As the final whistle signalled the end of Valencia’s 3-0 local derby home win over Levante last weekend, a familiar chant rang out loud and clear around the packed Mestalla.
This was not, however, the song of celebration you might expect at the end of a comfortable victory over rivals. Instead, the Valencia fans were calling – again – for the head of manager Nuno Espirito Santo with the popular refrain: “Nuno vete ya” (Nuno go now).
– Phil Ball: Football is a human business
Paco Polit, a Valencia-based journalist for Diario de Mestalla, told Sport360 that the complaints against Nuno are nothing new.
“Perception of the manager’s work and all-round figure have been on a slippery slope since the summer,” said Polit. “There were chants and boos even before the season began, against Roma in a friendly in August.”
Why? How can a manager who led his team back into the Champions League at the end of his first season in charge find himself under so much pressure? To understand Valencia’s present situation, we have to rewind a decade.
In 2005, Los Che were one of Europe’s biggest powers, having won La Liga under Rafa Benitez in both 2002 and 2004 and appearing in back-to-back Champions League finals a few years earlier.
But they were also on a road to disaster, attempting to stay within the elite by forking out wages they couldn’t afford plus, crucially, sinking tens of millions of euros into the construction of a new stadium.
Then came the global financial crisis, which hit particularly hard in Spain and especially in the domain of property prices, making the club’s plans to sell Mestalla for development a sudden non-starter.
Despite the enforced sale of stars such as David Villa, Juan Mata, David Silva or Jordi Alba, debts reached a staggering €350 million by 2013, while the vastly expensive ‘Nou Mesta-lla’ stood half-built, with work suspended since 2009 and no likelihood of completion.
The only option was finding a Sheikh Mansour or Roman Abramovich-style sugar daddy. Then-president Manuel Llorente scoured the globe – including at least one secret trip to Abu Dhabi – in search of an investor.
Finally, the club got the man they desperately needed: a billionaire businessman from Singapore, Peter Lim. A deal was agreed and Lim was presented amid scenes of great euphoria before a home game against Elche in October 2014, receiving a hero’s welcome from Valencia fans who clearly believed he was their great saviour.
Now, though, those same supporters are not so happy, because it has become clear that Lim arrived with strings attached. Namely, those strings are pulled by Jorge Mendes, the notorious super-agent supreme who was instrumental in bringing Lim to the club and, it quickly emerged, had no intention of finishing his involvement there.
Even before the takeover was completed, Mendes enabled the appointment of fellow Portuguese Nuno – his first ever client as an agent – as new manager to replace the popular Juan Antonio Pizzi.
And since Lim’s arrival was confirmed, the club has signed an unsurprisingly high number of players who are managed by or have close links with Mendes, including Joao Cancelo, Zakaria Bakkali, Danilo and Enzo Perez, creating suspicions that they owe their chief loyalties to the agent rather than the club, and that they will only stay until Mendes decides it is time to sell them.
There are further concerns over the true intentions of Lim, who first came to the attention of European football followers with an aborted attempted takeover of Liverpool in 2010. He has also invested in Salford City alongside Manchester United’s ‘Class of 92’, appointing one of that consortium, Phil Neville, as Valencia’s new assistant manager this summer.
Does Lim genuinely want to convert Valencia into a superpower, or is he only using the club as an initial entrance into European football before launching himself into what appears to be his first love, the English Premier League?
Nobody can be sure, and Lim’s policy of not speaking to the media has hardly done himself any favours in winning over doubting fans. The number of doubters increased significantly during the summer, which was marked by a distinct lack of the expected big name, big money signings.
Conversely, fan favourite Nicolas Otamendi was sold to Manchester City, with the deal facilitated by his agent – Mendes, of course. For many fans the most troubling aspect of the summer, however, was neither the club’s failure to significantly invest in players nor the Mendes links with those who did arrive. It was a political battle between Nuno and three of the club’s key backroom staff: president Amadeo Salvo, sporting director Francisco Rufete and scout Roberto Fabian Ayala, who felt marginalised by the powerful influence of Mendes and threatened to leave unless the situation was rectified.
Nuno stood his ground, Lim backed him, and Salvo, Rufete and Ayala all departed – with the startling fact that chief scout Ayala was not even replaced speaking volumes for the club’s current recruitment policy, which appears to be based upon little more than shuffling around Mendes’ personal portfolio.
Polit believes that episode was crucial in shaping the current negative atmosphere among the famously volatile Mestalla fans, explaining: “Mendes had absolutely the same influence last season and fans were eager to forget it if the team performed well.
“Salvo and Rufete were the ‘umbrella’ that kept Nuno, Mendes and ultimately Lim sheltered from criticism. They all thought they would do OK without that cover but now harsh ‘rain’ is slapping them – Nuno and Mendes, mostly – in the face.”
The concerns of the supporters were also voiced by the legendary Mario Kempes, the former Argentina striker who scored nearly 150 goals for Valencia between 1976 and 1984 and now serves as a club ambassador. In September, the influential and revered Kempes turned up the heat on the current regime by expressing his displeasure at the concentration of power in the hands of Nuno and Mendes, angrily concluding: “Where money is king, nothing else matters.”
The case of Alvaro Negredo has intensified the situation. Bought for a club-record €30m last year, he hasn’t played since October 4. Nuno first said the decision was tactical before then questioning the player’s attitude. “Negredo, Negredo, Negredo” they sang from the stands against Levante, the conspiracy theory being he is being treated unfavourably because his agent is not Mendes. Something Nuno vehemently denies.
As well as the stands, the uncertainty seems to have spread to the pitch, where Valencia have often looked this season as though they are going through the motions, even when individual quality has allowed them to sneak victories. What happens next is unclear.
Ultimately, sacking the coach would be the easiest way to appease those fans, and Mendes would find him another job easily enough.
And for his next trick, don’t rule out the super-agent recruiting his close friend and perhaps his most high-profile client, who may well become available for employment soon…a certain Jose Mourinho.
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