Valencia's unexpected run to last season's Champions League Final proved that even two group stages will not always filter out the troublesome upstart. It also illustrated the wafer-thin line between success and failure.
The Spanish outsiders came from nowhere to reach their first European final at just the second attempt - and they did so after sneaking into the competition at the death. Celta Vigo needed just a point against Atlético Madrid on the last day of the 1998-99 domestic campaign to secure Spain's fourth Champions League place; their first home defeat in more than a year opened the door for Valencia instead. Handed that unexpected invitation, the Ches proceeded to live dangerously in Europe. Before succumbing 3-0 to Real Madrid in the Final, the unfancied Spaniards went head-to-head with G-14 quartet Barcelona, Lazio, Manchester United and Bayern Munich, not to mention Fiorentina, PSV, Rangers and Bordeaux.
The last Spanish team to lose a Champions League Final was Barcelona. They got to the 1994 decider by beating Kyiv Dynamo, FK Austria, Monaco, Moscow Spartak and Galatasaray. Comparatively speaking, that qualified as a brief stroll in the park. Valencia's victories against Lazio (5-2) and Barcelona (4-1) were breathtaking exhibitions of attacking football. They were also performances that guaranteed nobody would take the Ches lightly this time around.
As the 2000-01 campaign kicked off, coach Hector Cuper was honest about the prospects of another extended Champions League run. "Last year we took people by surprise," said the 45-year-old Argentinian, "and this year we're there to be shot down." Neither Cuper nor anybody else at Valencia will admit as much, but the club's current priorities lie closer to home. Valencia may be European underdogs, but in Spanish terms the Ches are under-achievers. The 81-year-old club have won the League four times, but not since 1971. A Mario Kempes-inspired side did win the Cup-winners Cup in 1980, but there followed a 19-year spell without a trophy. In 1994 charismatic local businessman Francisco Roig took control of the club and promised to restore former glories. Guus Hiddink, Carlos Alberto Parreira, Luis Aragones and Jorge Valdano were among the prestigious coaches he gobbled up in quick succession as success continued to elude the club. The 61-year-old Roig is still majority shareholder, but since 1997 the more prudent Pedro Cortes has been president Valencia is arguably Spain's most football crazy city. Crowds at the creaking Mestalla stadium averaged a near-capacity 42,000 in 1999-00. Not only are the fans loyal, but they are also boisterous. It is no coincidence that Spain's best known - and noisiest- football fan, Manolo 'the Drum', owns a bar across the road from Mestalla. Clearly the Valencia players relish the din. The club have not lost at home in European competition for eight years. A draw against Manchester United last March was followed by 15 straight home wins.
The transformation in Valencia's fortunes can be traced to Claudio Ranieri's arrival three games into the 1997-98 season. The Italian forged a reputation as a take-no-prisoners coach at Roma and Fiorentina, a profile at odds with the happy-go-lucky city and its unstable football club. Any Spaniard Will tell you that Valencia is their country's most hedonistic city. In the annual Fallas festival, Valencia's streets are filled with bonfires. For the rest of the year the locals burn the candles at both ends. Watching the likes of Romario and Ariel Ortega slumber through an average 90 minutes, it was hard to escape the feeling that their motives for being on the Mediterranean coast were not strictly sporting. By the end of Ranieri's first year, the under-achieving stars were all looking for thrills elsewhere as the Italian went about rebuilding a chronically unbalanced team.
Ranieri's biggest service to Valencia was to kick-start the careers of a young duo Valdano had spent the previous summer trying to unload. Everybody agreed that Claudio 'Piojo' Lopez was the quickest player in Spain. He was also one of the least co-ordinated. Ranieri got the Argentinian's brain working in tandem with his legs and turned him into a world-beater. Gaizka Mendieta was even less promising raw material. "When Gaizka first started training with the first team he'd run through brick walls" says ex-Valencia midfielder Roberto, "but technically he was poor. In all my years in the game I've never seen a player evolve so positively".
Ranieri left Valencia after his side beat Atletico Madrid 3-0 in the 1999 Spanish Cup Final. The unenviable task of improving on the Italian's achievements fell to Hector Cuper. Like Ranieri, Cuper is a demanding taskmaster, albeit cut from a very different cloth. The Italian would approve of George Bush's approach to juvenile delinquents: what the US president-elect calls "tough love".
Cuper is a tough guy, full-stop. However, he is also scrupulously fair and a master tactician. As a defender, Cuper played five times for Carlos Bilardo's Argentina, but his mentor was Carlos Griguol at Ferro Carril Oeste, from whom he inherited a strict moral code. Cuper says: "It's an honour to work in football and we should all help to keep the game transparent and clean. That means having a certain ethical code and a sense of responsibility." Cuper's refusal to criticise referees is part of that moral code. He recalls: "If a player argued with the referee, Griguol would drag him off and make him run round the pitch; even if it meant reducing the team to 10 men." Away from the action Cuper is taciturn but disarmingly charming. And don't be fooled by the hound-dog expression. "If we beat Madrid I'm capable of doing something really crazy," the coach said before the 2000 Champions League Final, "like sprinting round the pitch half-naked!"
Cuper arrived In Spain in 1997 after turning two modest Argentinian sides, Huracan (1992-95) and Lanus (1995-97), into third-party contenders behind the Big Two - Boca Juniors and River Plate. In his first year at Mallorca, he led the newly-promoted islanders to a best-ever fifth-place finish and the Spanish Cup Final. Losing to Barcelona on penalties was a blow. Immediately losing six of his Cup Final team to wealthier clubs was a bigger one. But Cuper shrugged his shoulders and built an even better side. In 1998-99, Mallorca finished third and reached the Cup-winners Cup Final. They lost 2-1 to Lazio, but for a club with no European pedigree, limited financial resources and average crowds of 10,000, coming so close was a staggering achievement.
At Valencia, Cuper had to start all over again in more ways than one. One point in his first five games was a debilitating start to the 1999-00 season. When Real Madrid arrived at Mestalla in February, Valencia were still floundering in ninth place. Adrian Ilie's first-half goal was supposed to open the floodgates against an injury-ravaged Madrid, but Guti equalised and the visitors held out for a draw. Cuper's decision to substitute Claudio Lopez in the 88th minute was interpreted as a sign that the coach was happy with a point. The game finished with chants of "Cuper out!" echoing around Mestalla. "I never lost faith in my own ability but it's tough when 50,000 people are screaming for your head" admits the coach. "It was an unpleasant experience but it never affected my self-confidence. I've got a set of principles that I stick to through thick and thin." Talk to any of his players and they will tell you those principles are simple ones. "You can sum up Hector Cuper in two words," says Mendieta, "hard work and humility. Eventually that gets through to the players."
Most footballers will respond to a coach who can make them better. Cuper's record in that department borders on the supernatural. Dani, Romero, Ivan Campo, Marcelino and Ezquerro all arrived at Mallorca as cast-offs from bigger clubs. Yet under the wily Argentinian, all five played their way into the Spain side and on to lucrative transfers. The criminally under-rated Vicente Engonga made his Spain debut at 33. Cuper took Valeron and Lauren from the Second Division and made them into stars. One season under Cuper at Valencia was enough to earn Gerard a Spain debut and a move back to Barcelona. Francisco Farinos improved so much he was poached by Internazionale. Mendieta just gets better and better. Cuper works the magic with gnarled veterans too; in their mid-30s, Amedeo Carboni and Jocelyn Angloma both had the season of their lives in 1999-00.
Unfortunately, the Ches remain a second division club in economic terms. While Real Madrid, Barcelona and Deportivo were breaking transfer records this summer, Valencia were balancing the books. The Champions League windfall plus the sale of Lopez, Gerard, Farinos and Oscar brought £60million into the dub's coffers. Cuper was given less than half that amount to spend on reinforcements. The loss of Lopez et al meant the coach had to change his gameplan, too. The presence of towering strikers John Carew and Diego Alonso mean speed is no longer the Valencia buzzword, although Juan Sanchez has kept the goal tally ticking over. And though Didier Deschamps and Ruben Baraja bring savvy and sweat, Valencia's midfield no longer surges forward in irresistible waves.
More prosaic or not, the Ches were the only side to win their opening four Champions League games and went into December as Spanish League leaders; for the first time in 50 years they had topped the table for seven consecutive weeks. One thing is clear. Valencia would need to have a calamitous season for Cuper's cachet to fall.
Barcelona, Lazio, Juventus and Milan could all be looking for new coaches come the summer. It is no secret that Cuper's name is at the top of the most-wanted lists. At nearly £2m a year, he's already the highest-paid coach in Spain. But money alone will not keep Cuper at Valencia. The man from Santa Fe wants to make history. He could start by becoming the first man to lead Valencia to the Spanish championship since 1971. On that occasion Alfredo Di Stefano was coach. As Argentinian legends go, that's not a bad role model.
This article originally appeared in the January 2001 edition of World Soccer. Picture credit to James Evans.