Valencia, for the best part of the last eight years, have been at war with themselves. Divided internally, civil discontent has been rife. It might not be an ivory tower that ownership group Meriton sits in, but it is doubtless expensive and out of reach, based far away in Singapore. Valencia shut off their social media comments so that they couldn’t hear the backlash, derelict buildings were decorated in protest and the final match of last season saw more fans outside of Mestalla than in it. Regardless of where you fall on the conflict, there is no denying its presence.
It looked as if the ship had been steadied three seasons ago, when Marcelino García Toral navigated their way to a Copa del Rey win over Barcelona. What should have been a purely celebratory exhibition of fireworks blew a gaping hole in the hull, out of which Marcelino, now Barcelona Director of Football Mateu Alemany, Carlos Soler and Goncalo Guedes have since been swept. Marcelino has claimed that he was sacked for prioritising the Copa del Rey.
Soler and Guedes were sold this summer, necessary evils in order to fit into their salary limit. It did allow them to renew their hardiest soldier, their leader and captain Jose Gaya for the next five years.
The Valencian left-back could easily have exited too. At 27, he is in the prime of his career. Gaya is likely a significant part of the Spain World Cup squad, if not a starter. His future very much lay in his own hands, having rejected multiple offers over the years, he was out of contract next summer. While Los Che sold Soler and Guedes on the proviso that they would be able to renew Gaya, it was still his choice. Linked frequently with a move to Barcelona, he instead chose the side that finished ninth last season. Why did he stay?
“Well, in the end, I was brought up here since I was 11. I have been at the Valencia academy, and not just since I was 11 but even before that, I was a Valencia fan, so it’s difficult to explain,” he began. During a LaLiga-hosted question and answer, Ruben Uria of Goal had quizzed him on what Valencia meant for him, but it helped to connect the dots on his big decision too.
“You know, to be a fan of a club and then be able to represent that club as a player, as a captain. I have been through all the different phases at the club, through good times and bad times, but there are values that I have always thought that a player and an athlete should have. I think that Valencia have always given me everything. Since I was a very young child they have always helped me.”
Loyalty can be a pernicious term in football. Often expected from players when it suits clubs, frequently used as a the last bastion of the desperation when market forces combine to pull a player in a different direction. Yet Gaya’s words sound remarkably like the L-word – only in this case used with purity of purpose rather than as part of an accusation.
Even so, you don’t get to international football or receive that kind of interest without ambition and drive. Football España asked the Valencia captain what promises the club had made to him. How did their ambitions translate to objectives for the coming seasons?
“Well, at the end of the day, I am not a player that likes to look at the future in football. You have to look at the present. And you just need to have a good season. The future is uncertain, you never know what is going to happen. I am an ambitious player, of course, and I would like the club to be one of the best. And to do so we are really going to fight to achieve that, all the players. But you can’t set an objective beyond this season, beyond this week and beyond the next match.”
In a spell where thousands have fans have lost faith in the club – although perhaps not the team – Gaya maintains an almost saintly devotion. Recurring back to his first answer, his response is iron-clad.
“I am really happy here at Valencia and I have always said that, and the moment I am not happy here or I am not contributing what I should be able to contribute, I will be the first one to say it. But as we speak, I am really excited and happy to be at the club, to be an important player and to try and return to Valencia what they really deserve, which is to fight to win important things.”
“I have been lucky enough to play in two finals over the last three years, one of which we won. So I am where I want to be, here at Valencia. You should be loyal to a club that has given you everything.”
Of course what Gaya omits is how much he has given to the club. His new contract will end with him aged 32 and he is well on track to become a one-club man – Valencia will probably have his whole career in return. If he reaches the end of that deal, he will have spent 21 years trying to ensure Valencia fight for important things.
The growing disparity in football, both in financial terms and in the level of ambition clubs outside the elite can realistically aspire to, means that stories like these are becoming increasingly rare. Increasingly valuable as well.
Fighting is exhausting too though. Nobody can claim the stamina that Gaya has shown since he made it into the first team for the first time, on an apocalyptic night in Llagostera, reaching into the cold stretches of Catalonia towards the Pyrenees, now a decade ago.
In most nations, battered and beaten by political strife, there is a brain drain. People, justifiably, seek out better lives and better situations where progress is not stifled by that disharmony. Then there is the rare case of the engineer, the builder or the lawyer who sets aside personal gain to repair the house from within. Obstinate, they believe in improving things from the inside.
Gaya’s situation cannot be compared directly to a conflict-ridden country, but his role within the divided nation of Valencianisme might be as close as football gets. It is a natural human thought process to think the grass is always greener on the other side. Gaya has so far resisted that temptation despite plenty of reason to believe it might be. He is the captain that money can’t buy. Gaya is sticking around to make sure the grass is always green at Mestalla.