Valencia can go all the way, powered by Jaume Ortí's memory
After pushing Barcelona hard at the Mestalla, Valencia are now real title contenders
Rodrigo Moreno of Valencia celebrates after scoring his team’s first goal in their La Liga clash with Barcelona. Photo: David Ramos/Getty Images
Rodrigo Moreno sprinted towards the near post, slotted the ball past Marc-André ter Stegen and ducked behind the goal at the north end of Mestalla, team-mates racing to join the celebrations. In front of him, Valencia’s fans went wild; behind him a ballboy in a grey bib was busy reaching into a plastic carrier bag. David Vassilev is 14, he plays for Valencia’s Infantil A and in the middle of all the noise and excitement, the gathering crowd, players piling on, he had a job to do. He pulled out a big fuzzy orange wig he’d been hiding and handed it over. Rodrigo put it on and, taking a step back, pointed to the sky. Referee Ignacio Iglesias Villanueva headed over, card ready, but something stopped him, as if on his way it dawned on him what this was.
It was Sunday night at Mestalla, Valencia versus Barcelona. That morning at the parish of José María Escrivá they had held the funeral of former Valencia president Jaume Ortí, who passed away on Friday after long being ill with lung cancer, aged 70. On his lapel, son Jaume wore Ortí’s Valencia badge, given to those who have been members 50 years. Among those gathered was club president Anil Murthy, along with four former presidents. At a club too often divided, few united like Ortí. Few won like him, either. Bonico, they called him – roughly, Mr Nice Guy. The mourners were joined by the presidents of Levante and Villarreal, and ex-players gathered too. It was match day and current players couldn’t be there, but some had been to the chapel of rest the previous afternoon.
As they left, the striker Rodrigo, who’d been speaking to Ortí’s widow and his children, had an idea. He stopped by a shop and bought a wig. Before Sunday’s matchhe handed it to David. “If I score, give me this”. And while there must be a world of unfulfilled celebrations out there, on 60 minutes, he did score. David pulled out the bag and Rodrigo pulled on the wig. Everyone understood immediately – even the referee did eventually – just as they’d understood when a giant fan, two metres wide, was carried on to the pitch before the game, greeted by applause. Made by a Valencia supporters’ club in Aldaya in 1971 to celebrate winning the league at Sarriá, Ortí had brought it out 31 years later when they took the title in 2002 and again in 2004, parading it round the pitch.
He also wore a big fuzzy orange wig.
Around Mestalla on Sunday night, others did the same. The minute’s silence became a minute’s applause, more meaningful. “I decided to honour his memory and everything he did for the club,” Rodrigo said afterwards. What Ortí had done was huge; fans in similar wigs were paying homage to the man who, in three years as president, won two league titles, the Uefa Cup and European Super Cup, with Rafa Benítez as manager. A banner running across the south stand read: “Jaume Ortí: the president of a champion Valencia. Rest in peace.” As if the symbolism was not powerful enough, when Rodrigo stood there, they probably felt more like contenders, more like what they’re supposed to be, than at any time since.
Valencia’s bus had crawled into Mestalla two hours before kick-off, barely able to edge its way along Avenida Suecia to the gate. Thousands of fans were there to greet it, packed in and singing. “From inside the bus, it was emotional: the lads are awakening these great fans,” said Rubén Uría, Valencia’s assistant coach. “When you see that, it’s impossible not to go out onto the pitch like mad men,” said Gabriel. Valencia arrived unbeaten, 12 weeks into the season, their best ever start. After two years of problems, twice finishing 12th, the second division closer than Europe, they are a club restructured and reborn, fans revived. People had started daring to ask the question, even inside the club: could they win the league? This match – first versus second – would go some way to answering that. Beat Barcelona and they could. And now here they were beating Barcelona.
For most of the first half, it hadn’t looked likely. “Barcelona used to be a Rolls Royce; now they’re a nice 4x4,” Roberto Palomar wrote in Marca. “The driver is the same: Leo Messi. And he’d be effective driving a cement mixer.” Yet Barcelona were playing better than they have all season, looking more like the team they’re supposed to be, if not quite the Roller they once were, moving the ball fast and pressing high, dominating territory and enjoying 76 per cent of the possession. Samuel Umtiti was a cool as ever; Sergio Busquets was even calmer, above it all; Messi, his contract finally signed, the photo finally taken, was active; and Andrés Iniesta was enjoying his best game this year. If they hadn’t created many chances, they still should have led by half-time. “They were quite a lot better than us,” Rodrigo admitted.
Valencia had just one opportunity, racing away with the speed and precision that defines them under Marcelino, Simone Zaza’s shot eventually pulled wide. For once, they caught Barcelona’s players out of position and there was a particular reason for that: half of them were down in the other corner, confronting the linesman who hadn’t seen Messi’s shot slip through Neto’s hands and legs and well over the line. As Santi Giménez put it in AS: 47,775 people saw that it had gone in; the only two people who didn’t are the ones actually paid to see it go in.
Valencia had survived, but as one player admitted as he left Mestalla just after midnight, they had been scared, overwhelmed, struck by the visitors’ superiority. “We were inhibited,” admitted Uría, taking charge because Marcelino was suspended for the heinous crime of raising his hands on the touchline at Espanyol the week before. Asked how he could explain the first half, he said: “Because Barcelona are a great team.” It was time, though, to show that Valencia are too. “I told them they had to let loose: we had to go out there to enjoy it, to play,” he said. So they did.
Valencia took a step forward. They found space, particularly on the left, and they poured into it. This was a different game now, between different types of teams: “Valencia is fire, Barcelona are water,” wrote Ramón Besa in El País. “It’s not just the forwards who are dangerous, it’s the wide men – Guedes is a rocket – and they have good ‘launchers’ in the middle,” said Ernesto Valverde. The game shifted and when Gayá overlapped Guedes and Rodrigo dashed ahead of Thomas Vermaelen, reaching his perfect pull-back, they had the lead. It looked like they might keep it too. Barcelona became narrow. Luis Suárez lived offside. Nélson Semedo was exposed. Iniesta was withdrawn. There was little change of pace.
Valencia drew closer to a win that would put them a point behind Barcelona, six ahead of Madrid and Atlético. But with eight minutes left, Messi produced a Messi pass, an absurdly good delivery bent and clipped over the defence, dropped right into the six-yard box as if he’d picked it up and put it there with his hands, while everyone else was forced to stand still. Everyone except Jordi Alba, who zoomed in to volley an equaliser. “Only Messi sees those passes,” he said. Uría admitted: “I spoke to one of the Barcelona players afterwards and he said everyone knows what Messi’s going to do but no one can stop him.”
Valencia couldn’t, either. Yet as Las Provincias suggested there was another way of looking at the match: “Only Messi can stop Valencia,” its headline ran. The game opened up and right at the end they launched another attack. It came to Zaza, everywhere and exhausted. With the clock showing 93.49, he shot, collapsing to the floor as the ball flew into the stands. He has a torn meniscus, Guedes played with a broken toe, but with their team-mates, a young side still in formation, they had taken Barcelona to the edge. More to the point, the hope now is that they might do exactly that in the title race. Marca’s cover ran an old favourite. “Hay Liga,” the cover said – there is a league. And for Valencia there really might be.
“We could have killed it on the counter,” Rodrigo said, while one local paper declared them “on the verge of beating the best Barcelona of the year”. It wasn’t to be but they hadn’t been beaten – in 13 games only Atlético can say the same – and they had kept up pace at the top. His goal had not proven the winner but Valencia remain four points behind, four ahead of Madrid and Atlético, and unbeaten in 13. “They’re candidates,” Valverde insisted. “That late chance was a pity, but they’d had one just before too,” Uría admitted. “I have nothing but praise for what they’re doing; what I take away is the attitude, the effort, and the desire of these lads who are making history.”
“This Valencia is pride,” cheered El Mercantil Valenciano. Super Deporte opened on Rodrigo in his wig. “Bonico!” ran the headline. Nice! This was the game, it said, that had it all: “Football, controversy, and above all feeling.” Which is, ultimately, the point. Las Provincias called it an “unforgettable night”, not least because it held the promise of more, a future amidst the nostalgia and sentiment.
At the final whistle, the club’s anthem boomed out on a loop, rolling round as Mestalla emptied. The last line, long and drawn out, lauds a Valencia “champion”. There is a long way to go, and the players know the squad is short and young, with little in reserve; they know that keeping this up for 38 weeks is a huge ask, possibly beyond them; they know too that the opportunity to take a huge step had evaded them with that moment from Messi; but the revival is real. And while it may be the symbolism, the emotion, the atmosphere, standing there at Mestalla it no longer felt impossible for them to compete to be champions again for the first time since Ortí wore that wig.