Any Spaniard will tell you that Valencia is the country’s most hedonistic city, and that all those late nights are hardly conducive to logical thinking. How else to explain the fact that Mestalla stadium’s favourite party tune features a chorus of disgruntled fans barracking Hector Cuper?
Valencia’s European Cup pedigree before last season was limited to six games in 1971-72. Now they are appearing in their second consecutive Final. Cuper, who led European debutants Mallorca to the 1999 Cup-winners Cup Final, completes his third European summit in as many years. Yet even if the Ches go on to win the Champions League, the 45-year-old Argentinian will walk away from Mestalla in June.
Cuper spent much of his debut season at Valencia being compared unfavourably to his predecessor, Claudio Ranieri. Four defeats and a draw in his first five League games didn’t help. Nor did the taciturn Argentinian’s refusal to play media darling.
As late as February 2000, chants of “Cuper out!” echoed around Mestalla. Valencia’s dazzling Champions League run-in briefly turned the tide of terrace opinion, but by then Cuper was wounded. “It’s tough when 50,000 people are screaming for your head,” he admits.
Last season Valencia thrashed Lazio 5-2 and Barcelona 4-1 in the Champions League. This year’s progress has been more prosaic. Four days before the Ches beat Arsenal to secure a semi-final place, Cuper was harangued after a home League defeat by Alaves. His crime? Allegedly conservative tactics, yet defence has been the key (just nine goals against in 16 European games before the Elland Road tie).
Ruben Baraja, Vicente and Pablo Aimar have filled the void left by the sale of Gerard and Farinos, but without the lightning-fast Claudio Lopez, Valencia’s attack resembles a cultured prize-fighter with no punch. John Carew and Juan Sanchez are not among the best dozen strikers in Spain, let alone Europe.
Two days after Valencia sealed their place in the quarter-finals, Cuper admitted that he intends to leave in June. Reports immediately suggested he’d signed a draft contract with Barcelona.
“I’m flattered that people rate me as a coach,” says Cuper, “but at times I’m overwhelmed by so much media interest. And the Barcelona rumours are false. Valencia have offered me a contract extension and I’ve said no. For the moment, that’s the only fact.”
The Argentinian is puzzled by his lack of popularity among the Valencia fans. “Something is obviously missing,” he admits. “Valencia fans demand more risks and entertainment, but what is spectacle? I like my teams to play attacking football but I’m not going to commit suicide or give the opposition presents.”
You won’t catch Cuper’s players participating in futile style debates. Dani, Romero, Ivan Campo, Marcelino and Ezquerro all arrived at Mallorca as youthful cast-offs from bigger clubs. Under the Argentinian’s wing, all five played their way into the Spain side. So did Valeron. The Seville-raised Lauren could have joined them, but opted for Cameroon instead. One season with Cuper was enough to earn Gerard a Spain debut and Farinos a move to Inter. Romero is still thriving at Depor but the rest of the players have regressed without Cuper’s influence.
Last season Baraja was in and out of an Atletico side bound for relegation, while Vicente was a teenage debutant at Second Division Levante. Now at Valencia, they’ve become the ninth and tenth Cuper charges to make their Spain debuts in under four years.
And if you’re a veteran, Cuper is football’s equivalent of Viagra. Mallorca playmaker Vicente Engonga made his Spain debut at 33, while Valencia’s defence gets better with age: the nearer-to-40-than-30 Amedeo Carboni, Miroslav Djukic and Jocelyn Angloma have all signed contract extensions until June 2002.
Cuper is confident his men will acquit themselves better than in last year’s Final. That 3-0 defeat against Real Madrid still hurts. “I have problems explaining what happened to us that night,” he admits. “It was as if minutes before taking the field, our subconscious said: ‘Gentlemen, we’ve come all this way; don’t ask any more of us.’I’m convinced we’ll take advantage of a second chance.”
Cuper’s decision to flee the Mestalla hecklers has led to suggestions that he would wither under the Camp Nou spotlight. He rejects the idea in typically down-to-earth fashion. “I’m frightened of death or something bad happening to my family, but not of being a coach. I was lucky enough to be a player and to get into coaching, but I’m not losing sleep over the Barcelona job, or any job. As long as I’m coaching somewhere next season I’ll be a happy man.”