They say that you never really choose your football team. With little regard for your mental health, current (and prospective) relationships and general hopes and ambitions for the future, one big brutish bastard of a team will grab you by the hand and forcefully drag you down the aisle to be joined in irrational, passionate and bittersweet matrimony until the day you die. Not that it’s all bad – there are good times. Just enough of them to keep you blinded by hope when the shit invariably, and repeatedly, hits the fan (no pun intended).
Now, while I haven’t quite chosen a new team per se – New-fucking-castle won’t be nudged out of my affections that easily – I have been presented with a choice since arriving here in Valencia.
I was blissfully unaware of the fact that the city boasted two La Liga sides until I arrived here and started fishing around for something to do one Sunday afternoon (actual fishing not being an option that day, unfortunately) and saw that Levante were playing host to Real Sociedad and that tickets were readily available. So, I went and enjoyed the atmosphere and saw a decent, if unspectacular, game as a debut goal from none other than former Newcastle livewire Obafemi Martins helped ‘Los Granotes’ overturn a one goal deficit to win 2-1 in the type of stifling heat that one would expect to find in the muggy, breathless kitchen of a sizzling Texas steakhouse owned and run by the devil himself.
“Adelante Levante!” and all that but I wasn’t quite ready to fork out €60 on their faux-Barcelona jersey or even buy as much as a pencil in the club shop. I couldn’t nail my colours to the mast just yet.
A trip to the Mestalla awaited and I had an inkling that Valencia just might be my team. I was, after all, in a position to engage in a spot of glory hunting for once in my life and I was damned if I was backing the lame horse.
Weekends came and went and either Valencia were away or I was, so we’d have to wait a little longer to consummate our marriage. Not to worry, we’d get there in the end.
A midweek liaison with Lille in the Champions’ League saw an upsurge in form for Valencia as Jonas scored two in an altogether greatly-improved team display as Mauricio Pellegrino’s men put their league woes behind them and ran out 2-0 winners. They were hitting form at just the right time – a few days before the local derby.
Sunday 7th October had been an eagerly-anticipated date in the Spanish football calendar since the league fixtures were announced during the summer but that had absolutely nothing to do with either Levante or Valencia. Real Madrid were heading east to face Barcelona in the first league meeting between the two sides this season and all the talk was about ‘El Clásico’ – nobody seemed to care about the other mammoth derby that was taking place down the road…
I cared though. I would finally get to see Valencia play and, what’s more, I would do it as one of their own. I made a bee-line for the ticket desk at Levante’s ‘Estadio Ciudad’ and bought one in the ‘away fans’ section and eagerly walked around the perimeter of the stadium until I was safely ensconced in the bosom of ‘my people’. Although, one quick look around me and I noticed that the bosom wasn’t particularly welcoming or fragrant. It was 11.30am. Thirty minutes prior to kick-off – very early for anyone, anywhere to be up and about and enthused about a game of football in the mid-day sun, never mind the notoriously lazy Spaniards.
A quick scan and sniff of my new family told its own story; bleary eyes, designer stubble, the pungent waft of stale sweat and the hoarse-yet-hearty laughter of an all-night reveller too wired to even think about trying to sleep. Anyone who was here was still up after a serious all-night session and they were here to shout abuse, act the prick and sing their little hearts out with little regard for anything that might actually unfold on the pitch.
The minutes immediately before kick-off were brilliant and the excitement and anticipation were palpable. The air was dense with a swampy honey-glaze of molten noon-day heat as I found my seat right in the middle of the sleep-deprived, half-pissed Valencia Ultras. They were in fine voice and were all twirling and waving their scarves proudly as the two teams lined up. Once it was underway, the game itself was pedestrian, insipid and repetitive as neither team took control. The real action was in the stands. Classical-sounding ballads of local pride and vanity blended seamlessly into artless anthems of bilious hatred, before all the fans came to their senses as one, realised that there was a game on and that whoever had the ball was an ‘HIJO DE PUTA!!!!!!!!!!’
La Liga is often accused of lacking the passion of the Premiership and that may generally be the case - I don’t know - but I do know that this was quite a fiery occasion. Little sons looked up adoringly at their fathers as they hatefully roared in unison, while tattoo-covered brick shit-houses puffed heavily on joints and screamed profanities over at the Levante fans in the adjacent stand.
Yes, the Valencia fans were loud and they were proud but, most of all, they were just annoying. I didn’t feel entirely comfortable in their midst and while I should take the blame for my unwise choice in terms of the seats, I didn’t expect to be surrounded by complete lunatics. On a different day I may well have showed up drunk myself and seamlessly blended into their band of miscreants but it was early on a Sunday; I was clean, I was sober and I was interested in watching some football.
I longed to be sat amongst the wholesome, well-mannered Levante fans. Mothers bounced their babies lovingly on their knees and clapped hands in unison as fathers shared Cokes with their parched sons (as opposed to coke, which many of the feral Valencia fans may well have fed their children for breakfast) and everyone encouraged the team with ripples of applause and constant good-humoured singing. I was trapped and there was nothing I could do.
Or was there? Levante had taken a 1-0 lead during the first half thanks to an Obafemi Martins goal that was somewhat against the run of play but they were looking good for the 3 points. For the first time in my life I was in a position to be a glory-hunter for a day and change horses mid-race. It didn’t matter to me that Levante are really quite shit and will do well to reach mid-table this season. I knew I didn’t want to join Valencia’s army of spiteful, hungover semi-hooligans, so I changed out of my Batman costume… and into a different Batman costume.
A subtle sea change, imperceptible to the masses surrounding me, and I ripped my colours from the Valencia mast and nailed them firmly and proudly to Levante’s! Yes, I was now an undercover agent; behind enemy lines and living dangerously - ostensibly wishing for a Valencia goal on the rare occasions that they made a breakthrough but secretly delighted when Roberto Soldado and Co. frequently fluffed their lines.
With the clock ticking down, the tension ratcheted up. Minute after minute the fans grew more restless and the players became more purposeful and frenetic - everything seemed to be crescendo-ing towards a noisy, repugnant and ill-deserved Valencia equaliser. How the hell would I get out of this? My mask would surely slip! I could try to explain that I’m Irish and didn’t really support either team but that mightn’t wash with Big Gus and Hairy Jorge. I crossed my fingers and my toes and fixed my gaze on the scoreboard as the four minutes of injury time slowly evaporated. I wasn’t looking at the pitch but I knew that Valencia were on the attack. I heard the collective gasp of the crowd as a long ball was foisted goal-wards… and then I hear them exhale… and moan… and groan… the whistle had blown!
I shook my head sadly and knowingly as my eyes met those of the dejected fans around me as we all gloomily swarmed towards the exit… but inside I was somersaulting in tandem with Oba Martins.