Football: Sweat and style in the Valencia cheap seats

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The Independent Online
FOOTBALL IN the United Kingdom increasingly encroaches on the cricket season. Not only does the professional game more often directly compete with cricket but also our kids, enraptured by their football icons, are less inclined to put away their replica shirts and get out a bat and stumps. There are always football fun weeks or special tournaments in the school holidays. However, in southern Europe, summer football has a much stronger competitor: the weather.

Arriving in Valencia for a business meeting last Sunday, I decided on the spur of the moment to take in a match, as Barcelona were in the city for the first leg of the Spanish Super Cup. This is the equivalent of the FA Charity Shield. I took a cab from the airport to the ground. The driver looked at me questioningly when I told him I had no ticket. He clearly doubted I would get in. However, there were plenty of the cheapest seats available for 2,500 pesetas (about pounds 10). The other seats cost considerably more. Interestingly, in the big five European football nations - England, Germany, Italy, Spain and France - Spanish clubs derive by far the highest percentage of their turnover from gate receipts and the lowest from commercial activities. (French clubs' television income represents virtually 50 per cent of their turnover).

I thought someone had told me that Barcelona had at last succumbed to the temptation of shirt sponsorship, but there was no evidence of it. The famous red and blue strip was adorned solely with the club's centenary emblem.

I lost a good few pounds walking up the steps to my seat "in the gods" on the top shelf. The temperature at the 9.45pm kick-off was still a humid 25C. A good number of Catalans had made the short trip down the coast to watch the Spanish champions play their opening match of the campaign and the atmosphere in the stadium was as warm and friendly as the weather.

Valencia, who finished fourth last season behind Barcelona, Real Madrid and Majorca, pressed with more vigour. Barcelona played well within themselves, particularly as the game wore on and the heat took its toll. Frank de Boer marshalled the defence and intercepted with his customary panache. Sadly Rivaldo was absent, but Patrick Kluivert, linking for the first time with Jari Litmanen, was all languid movement and impeccable control whenever the ball reached him, darting after one-twos like a coiled cobra. From my vantage point, he did not appear to break sweat - but he must have.

The home team just about deservedly achieved a single- goal advantage to take to the Nou Camp for the second leg. Claudio Lopez came in on the blind side to head home a short cross from Angulo three minutes from the end. De Boer admitted that the Barcelona defence fell asleep.

The attendance was announced at 43,000, though I thought that was a little ambitious. To my untrained eye there seemed to be plenty of space in the 50,000 capacity Mestalla stadium.

The crowd was close to the action as in Bilbao and in Genoa, where Sampdoria and Genoa share a stadium remarkably evocative of Goodison Park. Mestalla has a large main stand, a high bank of seats to the goal at the right and an equally high stand along the other touchline. The fourth side, behind the goal, is being developed to take the capacity to over 60,000.

No doubt Valencia will be one of the venues in the Spanish FA's campaign to land the finals of the European Championship in 2004. These bidding wars are everywhere. Spain is competing with its Iberian neighbour, Portugal, where the breeze from the Atlantic makes for a more refreshing climate. I well remember England's two performances in steamy Madrid in the World Cup finals in 1982, when Ron Greenwood's team could not score in their second phase matches against Spain and West Germany yet still went home unbeaten.

Portugal were one of the countries beaten by England in the competition to host Euro 96, England also beat the Netherlands, Greece and Austria, who for 2004 have joined forces with neighbouring Hungary to attempt to land "the Danube finals". This latter campaign, however, has been fraught with some difficulty, as the currently less than mighty Magyars have gone through some turbulent times. Moreover, just as with the 2002 World Cup finals, which are being shared by Japan and South Korea, so Belgium and the Netherlands were beset by bureaucratic glitches in the early preparations for Euro 2000.

Spain are the front-runners in the contest. The president of the Spanish FA, Angel Villar Llona, was formerly a tough-tackling defender with Athletic Bilbao and rose through the administrative ranks very quickly to become an influential player in the field of European and world football politics.

Back at Heathrow, it was raining.