Valencia fans had waited 11 years for this kind of celebration.
A generation earlier, their soccer team, Valencia C.F., had been one of the best clubs in Spain, a two-time Champions League finalist and a domestic champion. That was before financial crises and mismanagement had sent it into a yearslong tailspin.
Now, in the spring of 2019, the fans could start to believe again. Victory in the Copa del Rey, Spain’s domestic cup competition, had ended a decade-long trophy drought. A deep-pocketed billionaire with powerful soccer connections now owned the club. The trophy, and the money, would herald the start of a journey back to the top, back to relevance in La Liga, back to closing the gap with the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid.
So as thousands of fans lined the streets to salute the team’s conquering heroes, Valencia’s beaming chief executive, Anil Murthy, spoke excitedly as he surveyed the scene from the deck of an open-top bus.
“I have never seen anything like this in my life: It’s incredible,” Murthy told a live television interviewer as players took turns with the trophy. “Practically the entire city is in the streets supporting this great club.”
It did not take long for the mood to sour. Within months, the coach and the sporting director who had built Valencia’s cup-winning team had both been fired. Within a year, the team was offloading players to save money during the pandemic. Fans shut out from attending games because of coronavirus restrictions now protest the club’s ownership from outside it. Board members are heckled in the street.
Valencia has won only two league games since November, and currently sits 14th in the 20-team table.Credit…Jose Jordan/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Less than two years after Valencia paraded a trophy through its city, its new dawn has been replaced by disillusion, anger and cynicism.
“This is Valencia’s worst time,” said Gaspard Romero, who was born into a Valencia-obsessed family and whose grandfather once served as the club’s accountant. “My nightmare will be to see Valencia in this state for a long period of time, with no purpose, like a zombie club.”
Valencia’s new reality is a hollowed-out roster, weakened by the sale of top players in the off-season, and a team that struggles to win even once or twice a month. After a positive start to the new season last fall, which included a 4-1 destruction of Real Madrid, Valencia has cratered, tumbling down the table. That has put a renewed focus on the club’s one-time savior, the Singapore billionaire Peter Lim, a reclusive figure who prefers to stay out of the spotlight but — in Valencia, at least — can no longer avoid it.
It was not always this way. Romero, 32, recalled how when he was a boy, the team was one of the most feared squads in Europe. How fans in the steep-banked stands at its Mestalla stadium roared as talented players brought joy and pride to the city. There were consecutive trips to the Champions League final in 2000 and 2001 and a league title in 2004, when Valencia’s team brushed aside Barcelona and Real Madrid teams containing the likes of Ronaldinho and Zinedine Zidane.
By the time Lim entered the scene in 2014, though, a financial crisis had engulfed the club. Top talents like David Silva, David Villa and Juan Mata had been sold off to make ends meet, and a combination of bad management and mounting had only made things worse.
Lim’s interest in soccer predated his investment in Valencia. Earlier in his career as an investor, he had parlayed his love of the English club Manchester United into a business operating United-themed cafes and restaurants across Asia. That allowed Lim, now 67, to build relationships with a generation of United’s stars, players like Gary Neville, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and David Beckham. Those relationships spawned joint business ventures in the hospitality sector and, since 2014, a co-ownership of Salford City, a team that plays in English soccer’s fourth tier.
Lim’s affection for Valencia, the fallen Spanish giant, did not run nearly as deep.
“He planned to buy a football club and the opportunity of Valencia came along,” Murthy said. Lim provided the money to acquire the team; loyal lieutenants like Murthy and others were installed to run it.
To many Valencia fans, Lim’s management style has been part of the problem. They noticed, for example, that he spent the 2019 cup final in a private box with his friend Beckham but did not visit the locker room to congratulate the team.
Though they once chanted his name in the streets, believing him to be their club’s rescuer, many now believe he never understood what the team represents in its city.
“It is our essence, what we have loved for so long, what our parents told us about,” Romero said. “It’s like they stole our memories, our traditions, our history, our pride.”
Lim’s critics also point to the clout of another figure in his soccer network, Jorge Mendes, the soccer agent considered to be among the most influential power brokers in soccer.
Even before he bought Valencia, Lim, with Mendes acting as an adviser, had been an active player in soccer’s multibillion-dollar player trading market.
By placing speculative bets on players just as he had once invested in small companies, Lim had hoped to profit from their future sales. The practice was banned by soccer’s governing body FIFA in 2015, a year after Lim bought his majority stake in Valencia. But a feature of Lim’s tenure has been the revolving door of talent, with Mendes often pulling the strings.
For desperate Valencia fans, though, whatever their concerns, Lim still offered a chance of salvation. The 2007 financial crisis had left the club in a bind, caught with two stadiums — its longtime home, the Mestalla, and the half-built shell of a new one that could only be completed with the proceeds from selling the old arena to property developers. Fear of bankruptcy felt real.
Excited by the prospect of restoring the team’s fortunes and completing the Nou Mestalla, fans picketed for the team to be sold to Lim. When his purchase was approved, fans greeted his arrival with the kind of reception usually reserved for a prized signing.
The flurry of bold promises and predictions made by the officials he installed to run the club, though, failed to materialize. Fans now bemoan not only the state of the first-team squad but also the seemingly whimsical decision-making that has seen a succession of players, coaches and sporting directors come and go, some replaced by questionable appointments seemingly guided by Lim’s personal relationships with Mendes or his connections to the former Manchester United cohort.
Lim appointed Phil Neville as a coach at Valencia in 2015, for example, and then hired his brother, Gary, who had never led a professional team and did not speak Spanish, as the team’s manager. The experiment lasted less than four months, with the team winning only three of Neville’s 16 Liga games.
Front-office appointments were just as curious. Figures with longstanding ties to the team and the city were replaced by executives close to Lim. Newcomers sometimes had little or no prior experience in European soccer.
“If you want to remove the coach and sports director, sign another coach and sports director to build a project,” Gaizka Mendieta, who captained the team in both of its Champions League final appearances, told the Valencia newspaper Las Provincias in December. “But no, what Peter Lim has done is take a step back and return to the model of the beginning, when they arrived.”
Few are predicting a bright future. Valencia still plays at the Mestalla, and its new stadium is no closer to completion. When the team’s leadership