Written by Paco Polit
From 1991, the International Federation of Football History & Statistics (IFFHS) had elaborated a complicated, stat-oriented ranking system to determine the best club in the world. Until 2004, the only two Spanish teams who had received such an award were FC Barcelona and Real Madrid.
Valencia CF were the first ones to change that.
Talking about the 2003-2004 Valencia squad is as classic as it gets for me, because I have that season burned into my brain, clear as day. It was my fifth year as a season-ticket holder; 1999 had proved an excellent opportunity to spend every other Sunday at Mestalla, climb around a thousand steps (or so it seemed at the time; now we’re talking about two thousand and plenty of panting when reaching the top) and sit down in my seat, right next to my four childhood friends. That year the Bats lifted the Copa del Rey, and what followed over the next five was one of the most satisfying periods ever witnessed.
First, two consecutive Champions League finals which provided plenty of drama and tears, especially after the trophy was so close in Milan in 2001 but Oliver Kahn crushed the Valencianista dream in the penalty shootout. Then, with an as-yet-unknown Rafael Benítez in charge, the surprising underdog unleashed their full potential by winning the 2001-02 LaLiga championship after overcoming a huge points deficit to Real Madrid in the last three months of the competition.
Then summer 2003. The season began with a lamentable episode against the gentlest, kindest and truest executive Valencia have had in the last thirty years. President Jaume Orti tried to address the crowd at a presentation game in August, but he was booed and mocked by the fans who were angry about a lack of big signings that summer. “Just let me speak; you can whistle later”, he tried to blurt out, absolutely dismayed by their behaviour. Such unfairness had little to do with the president and more with the ambition and desire the fans had to keep winning. But the team would deliver, months later, exactly that.
Legendary line-ups usually comprise a handful of excellent players joined together by fate (or a good job by the scouts). In Valencia’s case, this rock-solid squad was an absolute unit, with attitude, aggression, experience and more leaders than you can count on both hands, but with quality and charisma too.
It all started with Santi Cañizares, the guardian of clean sheets, and kept going until it reached Miguel Ángel Ferrer ‘Mista’, whose tally of 19 goals left him third behind only Real Madrid’s Ronaldo Nazário and Julio Baptista of Sevilla in the Pichichi standings, scoring 24 goals overall.
Icons could be spotted left and right whenever you visited Mestalla to enjoy a game which you just had this feeling that the home team would win. Gazing down from the steep stands, you could appreciate Fabián Ayala’s power and domination in the centre of the defence, leaping high above the opposition to score crucial headers or destroying any single striker who dared to set foot inside Valencia’s box. Didier Drogba is a case in point after he was muscled out of the game in that epic UEFA Cup final of May 2004.
But the most special players usually played in midfield. No words can describe just how brilliant Vicente Rodríguez was as the best left-winger on the continent, true class through and through as he dribbled, took defenders on, assisted and scored. He was a legend in the making who sadly never fully lived up to his potential due to ankle injuries.
Then there was the dynamic duo of David Albelda and Rubén Baraja. Never before had two players been so in-sync with one another. Four eyes, four legs, two brains who saw, played and thought as one. The way they beat even the toughest midfields into submission is something we have never seen since… and it’s doubtful that we will see anything similar ever again.
And the shirt? It’s perfect. Permanently etched into the collective memory of any true football aficionado, it is black and white, with classy sleeves, a flashy sponsor and a no-nonsense attitude. Which is very much like Valencia CF themselves, as they conquered Spain and Europe in 2004.
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You can also check out all of the shirts in this series, on the CFS website: http://www.classicfootballshirts.co.uk