Valencia 0 Real Betis 0 (15th September 2018)
One downside of having visited a large number of grounds is the ever decreasing number of them that you still actively really want to get to. The good ones that remain often are remaining because getting to a game there has complications. It might be distance, difficulty in getting tickets, or simply because they play in a country that doesn’t see any advantage in finalising fixture dates, nor allowing ticket sales, more than a few days in advance.
Spain falls into the latter category, with La Liga bending over backwards to accommodate TV, and show as many games as possible live over the weekend. This had limited opportunities to visit Valencia and go to a game at The Mestalla, but early season games seem to be fixed earlier than most, so this offered the chance to go, if I could work out a trip, plus another game or two around it.
Valencia itself was also a city I fancied going to, but if I though being in this part of Spain offered almost guaranteed sunshine when England was rapidly turning autumnal, I’d underestimated the “almost” post of that equation. Instead of blue skies and sun, I was awoken on my first morning to thunderstorms and very heavy rain – so heavy that the concourse of the city main railways station (weirdly called ‘Estacio del Nord’ – north station, despite being in the south of the city) was starting to see water flood through the doors. The lightning was also enough to fry my hotel’s internet router, and make the TV in my room (switched off at the time) spark up in quite a lively manner.
The rain persisted off and on all day, which was potentially something of a problem, because as much as I was looking forward to going the The Mestalla later that evening, like many Spanish grounds, only those forking out for the expensive seats get the luxury of a roof. My ticket, although hardly cheap, didn’t offer that luxury.
By early evening the rain was in a lull, and looked bright enough to allow the trip to the ground to be a leisurely 20 minute stroll from my city centre hotel – a walk aided hugely by the Valencian female fashion which could be summed up as “look at my legs, aren’t they fabulous?” in short dresses and very short shorts. The sly look-round when a girl has just walked past is so prevalent here that you suspect the city’s chiropractors must all drive Bentleys from the amount of whiplash work they do. If you like a leg (“Just the one?” to quote Ronnie Barker in Porridge) this is certainly your part of the world.
Early photos of the Mestalla show it surrounded by open fields, but it’s now in the middle of a lively residential area, with shops, bars, pretty much everything you could want for a football ground location, unless perhaps you want to drive to the game. There’s something just more atmospheric about a ground where people are milling about in streets instead of an open concourse area, and the stands and food kiosks all add to the build up. Even a man who for some reason seemed to be trying to sell sticks, was part of it. “Come and get yer stick” he’d have been saying in the Valencian dialect “don’t be without yer stick at today’s game.”
Valencia were due to move into a new stadium several years ago, but the money ran out with only the concrete structure built. This was something of a blessing in disguise, as the Mestalla has been extensively renovated in the mean time as a result, with a deep black and orange colour scheme, making this almost absurdly steep-sided venue more impressive and imposing that before. It feels much bigger than its 54000 capacity.
No sooner had I got into the ground than the drips of the next burst of rain started. It was now that I realised that a mistake I’d make while buying my ticket might actually work in my favour. I’d initially bought a ticket in what I though was the front row of the middle tier, but it actually turned out to be the back half of the lower tier. The front of the middle tier was instead directly overhead, proving some much needed shelter.
Just one row in front, the seats all contained pools of water, as fixed seats tend to do should something as absurdly unlikely as rain falling. I’ve never understood how the makers of such seats are incapable of designing them so rainwater just drains away. They all have a hole, which seemed to have been explicitly designed for that function, yet the designers never put into somewhere where it’ll be the lowest point of the seat. Net result, seats containing pools of water, and people angrily rising after finding they’ve just sat down in a puddle.
The rain teemed down, but from my low, dry, vantage point, I was able to appreciate just what a great stadium this is. The stands rise up, yet feel close to the action still, and it gives a sense of being “in” the ground that’s matched by few others. In the top tier, in the far corner, a knot of a few hundred Real Betis fans did their best to make themselves heard. That might not seem a lot of fans to take away, but people don’t appreciate the size to Spain. The drive would be similar to going from Plymouth to Newcastle, which few would want to do on a coach.
As the game was about to start, the clouds parted, giving the first real sunshine of the day, and everything seemed set for a great evening, but sadly both teams had different plans.
Maybe Valencia had an eye on their upcoming Champions League clash with Juventus four days later, but whatever it was, they rarely got out of second gear. The probably had the best chance of the first half, when a squared ball was tamely side-footed towards the goal, allowing the keeper a routine save. It was Real Betis who looked the better side in the first half though, albeit not by much, and I had that “this could be a nil-niller” doubt after just 15 minutes.
People will tell you La Liga is the highest quality league going, but the amount of misplaced or hopelessly over-ambitious passes was quite frustrating. Everything good Valencia did came on the left, in stark contrast to their right midfielder, who got the ball in plenty of dangerous areas, ideal for running at the defence, getting behind them and cutting the cross back, but instead he opted for a safe backwards ball every single time.
Maybe the pace of the game got to the home fans too. From an early noisy opening they became very subdued very quickly, to a point where you heard more noise from the cracking of sunflower seed shells that you did singing.
Backing, for a strange interlude, was provided by some kind of youth orchestra who were sat at the rear of the section I was in. Upon a signal they all struck up some marching band type number for a few minutes, then stopped, and were never heard from again. Whether they do this every game, or this was some odd one-off, I’ll probably never know.
For the second half, I decided to see if I could sneak upstairs for a better view, even if there wasn’t that much of a game worth watching. I’d spotted a sparsely populated section of seats above, although it wasn’t until I’d got there I realised why, namely that whoever designed the corner sections didn’t consider the main stand blocking the view any kind of issue. I could live with not seeing one corner though. Besides, with the seats refilling after the half-time break, I realised the designer of that corner wasn’t keen on exit aisles either, and I wouldn’t be able to get out without clambering over a lot of people.
The second half didn’t improve much. The home side did have a shot that hit the bar, but Real Betis inexplicably decided to play for a point in a game they could probably have won if they’d gone for it. With about 20 minutes to go, it seemed to occur to Valencia that they needed to score a goal to win, but they rarely looked like getting it, despite an increase in effort and urgency. I only know a handful of Spanish words, but you didn’t need a translator to understand the gist of the comments and gestures of the fans as each attack broke down in limp failure.
The final whistle brought an anticlimactic game to a predictable end. It wasn’t terrible, and it was a dreadful performance, but it was still disappointing, and fell into that gap when fans didn’t really know whether to clap the team off or boo. Most did neither, just shuffling off into the now dark night. Could have been worse. It could have started raining again.
I also went out to have a look at how the Nou Mestalla was coming along, as well as Levante’s stadium. Neither trip was hugely fruitful. I couldn’t get in either ground, reduced to taking the odd pic through a mesh fence at Levante, and over the seven foot high steel wall that completely surrounds the Nou Mestalla – the only sign of life there is a few weeds trying to reclaim the site for nature.