Valencia: Hidden Treasure inside Mestalla

Words by Xavi Heras, Photos by Carla Cortés

Editor's Note: Levante are 106 years old, and finally enjoying their golden years as a football club. After decades upon decades of wandering through the lower-league desert, the Valencian club is now competing in La Liga for the fifth consecutive season. They've finished as high as sixth in the table, and also reached the last 16 of the Europa League in 2012-13. Yet, despite the recent success and stability of Las Granotas (The Frogs), their playing résumé and future prospects can appear Lilliputian when viewed next to local rivals, Valencia, who have won the Spanish top flight six times, the Spanish Cup on seven occasions, and have been UEFA Champions League runners-up twice.

Valencia aren't just the big kids on the block whom Levante have seen roaming down the street; they've also personally bullied Las Granotas in the past decade, ever since Levante re-entered the top flight after a 41-year hiatus. To this day, Levante have not emerged from Valencia's Mestalla with all three points, repeatedly failing at a stadium whose steeply-raked terraces cage in the opposition, rattling them with gargantuan walls of sound.

Our friend Xavi Heras, a devoted Levante fan, recently made the trip across town, to see if his club could break its duck at Mestalla in one of European football's more unique intracity derbies — one typified in many ways by the historical gulf in honours and resources between the clubs, rather than even-footed rivalry.

***

I have never seen my team beat our local rivals, Valencia, away from home. No one has, actually. There's a hidden treasure inside Mestalla for us Levante fans, but the Granotas have never been able to figure out how the map works. Or maybe they’ve just got the wrong piece of parchment. Either way, on this day, to get away with just a single point would be enough for a set of fans used to being knocked about on the other side of town.

We hoped, at least, to have a good day out. Valencia are battling for a Champions League position and to, as they say, keep the possibility of a league title alive. Meanwhile, Levante are trying to avoid relegation. It's only our 10th season in the top flight — quite a small number for the oldest team in the region  but it’s our fifth consecutive year in La Liga. The recent stability is our club’s biggest achievement.

The week leading up to the match has been weird, to say the least. The feeling you expect in a city waiting to host a football derby wasn't there — not, at least, for the vast majority of us who got lost in a series of other Spanish football headlines, including the Atlético–Real Madrid Champions League derby scheduled for just 24 hours later. In the background, us Levante fans were biding our time, hoping to avoid another painful loss away to Valencia.

We had been given hope for the derby after pushing Sevilla to the brink. We still lost, as usual, but played well against a side who captured Europa League glory last year and are pushing for more of the same this season. After that performance, an away win seemed possible, even a likely prospect as the week wore on. After all, in football, you never know. We wanted to believe — and, if we didn’t, then who would?

The weekend arrived, but our derby was to be played the following Monday, meaning there was nothing to do on Saturday and Sunday but watch La Liga’s other sides battle. Astoundingly, all of Levante’s rivals at the foot of the table gained points, with an unlikely few even winning their fixtures. Suddenly, the derby’s stakes grew even higher for a club whose prospects of survival were growing slimmer each day.

At long last, it was Monday. Derby day.

The words “us” and “them” were created for these sorts of days. Days to feel proud of one's convictions and let the world know about them. So, after a meal with mates was washed down with a few beers, there we were, trespassing across enemy lines, brandishing scarfs, banners and flags after a three-kilometre walk from one stadium to the other. We were now on their turf. Derby day. This was it.

We were in seventh heaven as we entered the stadium. Not because we were happy — we were—but because the section for away fans is located in row Z, at the very top of Mestalla. After a few minutes of breathing the thinner air, the players came out of the tunnel — and it all became real. One of the highlights of the season, the fixture we had circled on our calendar when all the dates were published, was about to kick off.

The anticipation mounted and Levante was buouyed by the occasion. We kept the ball well in the opening moments of the match and even collected a few chances. We were buzzing, both on the field and in the stands, but after just 16 minutes, Valencia striker Paco Alcácer put his name on the scoresheet after a fine header between two Levante defenders. He then pointed to the badge he was wearing on his shirt: Valencia CF. Them.

Two more goals came, bringing the final tally to 3-0, and the mocking that we knew so well from the past, commenced. Valencia fans gloated, telling us to go down to the third division. But, they can laugh all they want, because I’m confident we’ll be back here again next season. We’ve still got a job to do, and a hidden treasure to find inside Mestalla. And, one day, we're going to find it.

 

This story was sent to us by Xavi Heras. Be sure to follow his work on Twitter and Highbury.

If you have a story to share, you can reach us @whereisfootball or send an email to here@whereisfootball.com.