Timing in football is everything. Throw in a few “if onlys” and the story of Valencia Club de Fútbol’s Nou Mestalla could have been very different. Regrettably, timing, fate and circumstance mean that Los Ches do not play in a state of the art stadium. Instead, what they are left with is sky-high debts and a skeletal hulk that has passed as their future home since 2009. So what went wrong and will this stadium project ever be successfully concluded?
To appreciate why the club embarked on this huge project, it is helpful to understand Valencia’s standing in the Spanish and World game at the turn of the millennium. In a five year period from 1999 to 2004, the club won two La Liga titles, appeared in two Champions League Finals, won a UEFA Cup, UEFA Super Cup, the Copa del Rey and the Spanish Super Cup. By any standards that is an impressive haul, which saw the club ranked number one in Europe at one point. Despite having just finished expanding their Mestalla home the club wanted more. With money arriving by the lorry-load, Valencia genuinely thought they could consistently challenge the established hierarchy of Spanish football. They had the players, but they believed they needed a larger stadium. Crucially, the club missed out on Champions League football in 2003, and whilst the La Liga title was regained in 2004, two years had slipped-by without any firm developments for the new stadium. Plans for the new build were eventually unveiled on 10 November 2006 by then-president Juan Soler.
The Nou Mestalla was to be built on the site of a former factory on the Avenida Cortes Valencianas, in the North West suburb of Benicalap. It was to be designed by renowned architects Reid Fenwick Asociados, who were already working on RCD Espanyol’s new home in Cornellà-El Prat. The new stadium would seat 75,100, have all the corporate facilities that are a necessity for any modern arena, a club museum, parking for 3,500 and have UEFA’s highest 5-star rating. The cost of the project would be €340m, of which €220m would be the cost of the stadium, with the rest being spent on commercial, entertainment and retail units. The original design was striking, to say the least. The stadium was to be clad in aluminium, with the roof panels denoting Valencia’s neighbourhoods. Light would pierce through glass sections of the roof and walls, representing the Rio Turia as it cut its way through the city.
Work began on 1 August 2007, but almost immediately timescales slipped, not helped in part by the drying up of funds. In addition, Valencia was just about to have their worst domestic season for nearly 20 years and as a result would not qualify for the Champions League. With serious doubts raised over the stadium’s funding, the initial plan to complete the build by August 2010 appeared unlikely. Things were not going well on site either, as tragedy struck on 26 May 2008. Four construction workers were killed when scaffolding and a retaining wall collapsed on one of the stadium’s ten main towers. A further failure to qualify for the Champions League in 2008-09 saw the clubs debt rise to crippling levels and when in the spring of 2009, the club defaulted on several payments to the construction companies, worked stopped on the new stadium.
In June 2009, the club agreed on a capital release deal with Bancaja, which saw its debt rise to a mind-blowing €544m. If it hoped that this would add impetuous to completing the build, it was sadly mistaken. By now, the World Financial Crisis had Spain in its grip and the construction industry had all but ground to a halt. New housing projects, in particular, were practically non-existent, and therein was the Nou Mestalla’s fatal flaw. A large chunk of the funding was to come from selling plots of land at the old Mestalla for housing development. But with the banks not lending money and the building industry in intensive care, the club’s main asset, the city centre location on which Mestalla stood, was all but worthless. In December 2011, new club president Manual Llorente brokered a deal with Bankia that would see a reduction in club debt and the completion of the stadium by the summer of 2014. In return, Bankia would take over the sell and development of the old Mestalla site. The deal also saw a change to the original plans. Capacity would be cut to 70,000 seats and the aluminium exterior and roof would be replaced with plate glass. Strangely, these modifications were passed by Llorente’s board without any consultation with the original architect, Mark Fenwick. Needless to say, the deal faltered with Bankia breaking the agreement, indicating that the sell of the old Mestalla for housing was no longer viable over the period of the original agreement.
Move on another couple of years and another club president had another plan. Under the project name GloVal, Amadeo Salvo announced significant changes to the Nou Mestalla. This time the club did consult Mark Fenwick and a new-look stadium was unveiled. The proposal saw the exterior of the stadium simplified, with the roof covering only 75% of the seating (The minimum required for the stadium to gain UEFA Elite Status). Capacity would be reduced to 61,500 by increasing the spacing between the seats. This would allow the club to increase the capacity to its original 75,100 at a later date with relatively little cost. Other savings would be made by reducing the number of stadium amenities and leaving the hospitality and restaurant facilities on the third tier vacant. Underground parking and commercial outlets would also be reduced. In theory, this would cut the cost of completing the stadium to €100m. In reality, it was an exercise in window-dressing. The club was hoping that its perilous financial position and apparently ruinous stadium build could be salvaged by a wealthy suitor. It would be too simple to blame the new stadium for Valencia’s perilous financial position. The Nou Mestalla was undoubtedly a symptom of over a decade of mismanagement, but certainly not the cause of the club’s problems.
After years of searching, and a rather protracted courtship, Valencia did find a new owner in the shape of Singapore businessman and owner of the Meriton Group, Peter Lim. Understandably, Lim’s priority was to stabilise the club’s finances, but he and his representatives were more cautious about the future of the Nou Mestalla. They did visit the site at the end of October 2014 but only stated that the club will celebrate its centenary in 2019 with “new stands”. Two years of inactivity passed before the club confirmed that any completion of the project would be dependent on the club selling the site of the Mestalla. The statement was accompanied with details of yet another pared-down version of the stadium. Deloitte’s were appointed to develop a new financial package that would enable construction to re-start and find a suitable suitor for the site of the existing Mestalla.
Whilst it may seem incredulous to spend over €100m on an unfinished stadium and walk away, it isn’t as straightforward as starting up again at the Nou Mestalla. The site has been exposed to the elements for nearly a decade and reports suggest that it will require further investment just to get it back to a point where construction can continue. Could Valencia just walk away from the project and re-focus on redeveloping their historic home? Time will tell, but Lim’s proposed investment in the team and the Nou Mestalla simply has not materialised.