Valencia deserves your respect
Plus: Appreciation for Rayo and Pep -- but not Pepe
A few years ago, Valencia was being governed by a man, Juan Soler, who I'm sure was not a total idiot but whose decisions, attitude and manner gave every indication that he was at least doing a good imitation. Among his many (many) follies was a decision that he would force some of the old guard out of the club by making their lives increasingly difficult, unsatisfactory and unrewarding.
This is a depressingly normal tactic in football, and for legal niceties Soler explained that the three players -- David Albelda, Miguel Angel Angulo and Santi Canizares -- were neither sacked nor were they being isolated from the rest of the squad. But he made clear to his coach, Ronald Koeman, and Koeman made clear to the players that it was time for the three musketeers to seek new pastures.
"It's a strong decision and one which needs the total backing and involvement of the president," Koeman confirmed at the time.
By and by, the situation got so bad that it went in front of legal tribunals during which Albelda alleged that Koeman told him, "You'll never wear the Valencia first-team shirt again."
It was a dark period in the history of a proud club. At the same time, Soler was running up a large chunk of the debt, which to this day is hung like a millstone around Valencia's neck.
I remember explaining the situation on Revista de la Liga, Sky's Spanish football magazine program. Right after we went off air, the producer called me and said, "That's an incredible story, can we get Albelda to talk about it." Within 12 hours it was arranged; I was in Valencia and Albelda discussed the impotence and rage he felt at being treated with such disdain by a club that he loved and where he had spent 99 percent of his career. He was hurt, angry and articulate.
Five years later, Albelda, now 34, remains a key footballer at Valencia while Koeman and Soler have long gone, a fact that denotes that they not only treated Albelda and his fellow players horribly but that they read the technical situation poorly.
Not surprisingly, I won a friend in Albelda that day I interviewed him, but I find myself having to disagree with him this week. And again, it's all about having the right to disagree or criticize, but the manner of doing so being all important. But let's back up a minute.
Valencia, I state again without hesitation, is a little miracle club right now.
Its horrendous debt that was touching 500 million euros should have foreclosed the club, but the local council and banks fought to keep their emblematic La Liga club alive.
The club has sold stars at a massive profit, which helps reduce the debt but also constitutes a massive hemorrhaging of talent. Valencia has also produced an austerity program that has helped cut nearly 200 million euros off that global debt when sales are taken into account.
Yet despite that, Valencia has consistently qualified for the Champions League -- which earns the club 30 million euros in revenue for group-stage qualification -- in which it has continued to look relatively competitive. In La Liga this season, it has spent months in third place behind massive spenders Barcelona and Real Madrid, and it's in the semifinals of the Europa League.
Valencia's coach, Unai Emery, is a man in whom God seems to have invested more than his share of energy, electricity and intensity -- he's like a tornado in a milk bottle. Not all his players, not all the local media and by no means not all of the Valencia fans like or appreciate him. However, his achievements in buying well and blending new players into the squad and teaching them how to mature (I'm talking about Jonas, Sofiane Feghouli, Jordi Alba, Roberto Soldado, Vicente Guaita, Adil Rami, Tino Costa and Ever Banega) have been exceptional.
Over the past few weeks, the team has played with a touch of tiredness and dullness, resulting in the club falling to fourth place behind Malaga. Chances have been missed and leads have been tossed away, and on at least two key occasions the crowd at the Mestalla has turned against Emery (although it has been short-tempered with his decisions for some time), showing the traditional Spanish Panolada, with everyone standing up and waving a white hankie in the air as the ultimate gesture of unhappiness.
At this point, it is widely expected that Emery won't keep his job at the end of the season. Crazy, but there you have it.
So the coach took to the media and said, without bitterness, he expected and needed better support for the team at this critical time of the season, when some players are running on empty and the noise of loyal fans can be like an intravenous drip of energy and commitment.
Albelda took a different tone in an interview and suggested, without too much malice, the fans were not to be brought into this and were, more or less, entitled to do what they pleased. It was breaking ranks, and Emery dropped him from the starting lineup. That decision is between the coach and the experienced, hard-nosed player. Happens every week of every year in football.
Where I take issue is with the fans. Emery was correct. It is literally beyond belief that there are some so mono-browed and Cyclops of vision at that stadium that they aren't genuflecting with gratitude at what this coach and his players are (over) achieving. If they want a different coach, fine. If they want to win the title, fine. If they think that they should be developing a Lionel Messi in the cantera and signing Wayne Rooney, fine, again. Football fans need to dream. But they also need to support.
Graham Hunter is also the author of "Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World," available as an e-book on the iPad, Kindle and Kobo. The printed version is available in paperback and can be ordered at BackPage Press.
The time and place for that would be in the media, in forums, when the club opens itself up for feedback -- not when the team is trying to drag itself into the financial safety of third position and to win the UEFA Europa League.
An example would be last week, when the Mestalla crowd loudly chanted in support from start to finish of what was an absolutely magnificent performance by Emery's team to thrash AZ Alkmaar 4-0 and qualify for a semifinal against Atletico Madrid. The team was absolutely brimming with confidence and energy, and it was an utter joy to watch. Alkmaar was blitzed.
The crowd can't win you the match, but it can be a massive help. Every time I ask senior players about this factor, they almost unanimously admit that they need to do their job, but in moments of doubt or flagging energy loyal support is worth its weight in gold.
Off the back of its five-star European night, Valencia traveled to the Santiago Bernabeu. Emery left out key players such as Soldado and Jonas, yet the team put on another jaw-dropping performance after which Iker Casillas admitted Real Madrid might have lost to the plethora of good chances Los Che produced.
Had the fans been as rabidly with Valencia in recent weeks as they were against Alkmaar, then, who knows, an extra winning goal or two might have been produced by legs that thought they couldn't run another yard. It's an imponderable, but there is evidence enough to suggest that those who were booing and waving white hankies were doing nothing to help.
What Valencia is achieving is a football miracle and, to boot, it sometimes plays wonderfully. Those among its support who cannot temporarily set aside their dislike of Emery or their frustration that, for the moment, Valencia can't win this league don't deserve the good things being done for their club.
For more Graham Hunter, check out his columns on all things La Liga and Spanish soccer.
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If nobody else agrees with me, Jose Ramon Sandoval, the exceptional coach of Rayo Vallecano, does. Before Vallecano's visit to the Mestalla, he pointed out that Emery is a brilliant coach, very methodical, and a guy who draws the very best out of every group of players of which he takes charge. "He's easily one of the best Spanish coaches," Sandoval said.
Sandoval also represents this week's theme -- that of the dull of mind who don't appreciate what's in front of them.
His club is in administration and, talking of miracles, won promotion to the top division last year with the vast majority of the squad and technical staff either not being paid or having their salaries hugely delayed.
At the time of writing, Rayo sits six points off qualification for a European place for next season and ended a run of three consecutive defeats with a 6-0 destruction of Osasuna. The strange thing about that mega-win is that in the couple days before, poor old Sandoval, who wept with joy when Rayo won its first game of the season, received a letter from the administrators claiming that he owed them, and should repay, a six-figure sum.
Just ahead of the Osasuna win, the coach admitted that he was in pieces. Instead of being proffered a new contract, a raise or even a wee note of gratitude, he was being sued.
The details are both complicated and not the main issue. Paid only a minor part of his wages over the past two seasons, the previous administration, just before handing over control of the club, found a way to pay some of its debt to Sandoval to prevent him from leaving in the summer. Almost immediately, the administrators were brought in and they judged that Sandoval, only one of the creditors, has had too big a slice of the overall debt paid to him and that other creditors have lost out.
What isn't contested is that Sandoval has done an absolutely immense job, helping the club in its drive to defeat debt by keeping it in La Liga this season. You get a feel for the size of the achievement in knowing that only in 13 of Rayo's 87 years has the club been in the top flight, and its best-ever finishing position is ninth.
How it is possible for a club to treat one of the most important employees in its entire history with such disdain is beyond description.
When Rayo loses Sandoval, as it surely will, and when it is relegated next season without him, then let the administrators and the current board look at each other and play "find the dolt." There will be some candidates from which to choose.
Now just a couple addenda on the subject of appreciation. At the time of writing, Barcelona's brilliant coach, Pep Guardiola, still hasn't announced whether he will renew his contract or leave in the summer. But the subject has died down a little in the media as the crucial part of the season reaches us and the importance of every single match rises.
What is important to note is that the appreciation his players feel for him has helped Barca go on a sequence of major victories in the league and Champions League. They are not only unaffected by Guardiola's uncertain future but also demonstrating on the pitch that they want him to stay.
The coach explained why he is dithering over a new deal while he was promoting one of the companies he sponsors, Banco Sabadell. "When you are a manager you need to be conscious of the fact that you could leave tomorrow," Guardiola said. "I work better when I feel that I have control over my own future. Being tied to a contract for a long time makes me very nervous and it's the very thing that can end up causing you to lose your passion."
Guardiola's unusual stance has led to offer after offer from clubs such as Chelsea and Inter Milan, and I'm certain it must, from time to time, drive the Barca board to distraction. But it's working.
Just like when Guardiola moved Messi to center forward, opted to play three at the back, produced a "Gladiator" video before the 2009 Champions League final and traveled to away matches on the day of the game -- what he's doing now is unorthodox.
But it's Pep.
President Sandro Rosell and his directors need to continue appreciating, for the moment, that whether they have him until June 2012 or June 2015, Guardiola is exceptional and should be appreciated, idiosyncrasies and all.
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To close this column, there's one person in La Liga for whom it's difficult to feel any appreciation or respect. Real Madrid's Pepe has a list of football crimes long enough to engage the interest of Interpol. Yet he won't learn, he won't repent and he continues to besmirch the name of his great club.
This past weekend, he kicked his teammate Alvaro Arbeloa, and whether it was a mistake (because he thought he was kicking an opponent) or in a fit of pique interests me not. Pepe is a disgrace to himself and to Real Madrid. The sooner he's gone from La Liga the better for everyone.
Graham Hunter is a Barcelona-based freelance writer for ESPN.com who specializes in La Liga and the Spanish national team. You can reach him on Twitter at twitter.com/BumperGraham.