FEATURE | Why Peter Lim and Meriton Holdings are under fire in Valencia

When it is reported that the president of a football club starts to move around the city with an armed bodyguard, you immediately know that things have reached breaking point. This occurrence would be surprising if we were not talking about Valencia CF. Alas, we are. Why it comes as no surprise is that lots of bizarre things seem to always happen at Valencia. It might not even be the most outrageous thing we have heard this decade about Valencia presidents! After all, there was a court case some years ago about one former Valencia president kidnapping another former Valencia president. This is not a drill. The club really delivers the best soap operas anywhere.

These soap operas might be entertaining to the neutral watching from outside, even intriguing, but for Valencia fans, there is nothing amusing about it. This is a battle for the continued existence of their club, a battle for the soul of a 101-year old club with rich history and traditions. This is the reason why they have taken to the streets to protest against the Peter Lim-led Meriton management of the club, asking for them to leave the club. The main hashtag and slogan is simply “Lim Go Home”.

Perhaps, the most remarkable thing about the goings-on at Valencia currently is that the club’s management appears to be tone-deaf to the worries and complaints from the fans. In fact, it seems as though Meriton is pretending to be confused by the fans turning on them and believe the fans have nothing to complain about. Nothing tells a better story of their handling of Valencia in six years than this; a complete lack of awareness coupled with a tendency to ignore and disregard criticism however constructive.

The fans believe they have every right to be aggrieved. Meriton Holdings have not only made questionable decisions that have often divided opinion, they have also gone about things in a way that even their most diehard defenders would feel weird defending. Their actions seem to show a lack of proper planning or thoughtfulness and overwhelming evidence of a group who just do things on a whim without thinking about the short or long-term consequences. The voice and tone of their brand and communiqués seem to communicate the message ‘you should be grateful to us that we are here, we are doing you a favour’.

Indeed, if there was any doubt about this, despite a 6-year-long pile of evidence pointing to this, the post that appeared on social media reportedly by Peter Lim’s daughter certainly confirmed it. It basically said her family can do whatever they want with the club. The fans expectedly reacted angrily.

Valencia is a revolving door with no job security for anyone. Your job seems to depend more on Peter Lim’s feelings than whatever competence you have shown. Your on-the-job excellence seems to count for nothing and when you’re no longer in Lim’s good graces, you probably get kicked out in the most unceremonious ways. This is one of the reasons why the fans are upset. As far as they are concerned, this is no way to run a club and it shows a lack of direction.

A lot of people have come and gone in Valencia and the latest to feel the heat are players, key players who have given their all to the club. While it is understandable that Valencia’s inability to qualify for European football coupled with COVID-19-imposed financial issues makes it imperative for the club to cut costs, Meriton’s idea of cutting costs and the manner in which they have gone about it comes off as self-sabotage rather than a valiant attempt to keep the club afloat. And whose fault is it anyway that the club finished 9th? Meriton.

They fired a manager and director, who had saved the project from complete disaster and elevated it, over reasons that were more related to Lim’s ego than the sporting side. And then they replaced him with a manager that was obviously out of his depth. It was that manager who ultimately took the club back to the level they had spent six years trying to leave behind permanently.

When Meriton arrived in Valencia, the club had just finished 8th in La Liga with 49 points (51 goals scored, 53 goals conceded) and lost the semi-final of the Europa League to Sevilla with the last touch of the ball. This past season, Valencia finished 9th with 53 points (46 goals scored, 53 goals conceded). Yet, this isn’t even the worst Valencia has been under them. In their first season, there were certain professionals in charge working hand-in-hand with Meriton, including club legends Rufete and Ayala. That season, things went extremely well and they finished 4th with the club’s joint-highest tally in history. What followed was an exodus as Meriton managed to destroy whatever little structure they had built within the club. Those professionals who understood how to handle the sporting side left. What followed as Meriton ran things at the club themselves for the next two years was that the club finished 12th twice, after flirting with relegation and overseeing some awful player signings and manager hires.

With the fanbase frustrated and in constant protest at their handling of the club, they finally made the smart decision of hiring professionals once again to run the sporting side of things. What followed was the club finishing 4th in back-to-back seasons, reaching a European semi-final and winning the Copa del Rey, their first trophy in 11 years. Many thought they had finally learned their lessons and the professionals had earned the right to be trusted with more key decisions impacting the club on the sporting side. Rather than that happening though, Meriton decided to meddle once again, ultimately ensuring yet another exodus with inexplicable sackings. With them fully in charge once again, the club finished 9th and had its worst season since the last time they were fully in charge.

Despite all this, they still seem rather confused by the criticism and ire of the fans. Valencia fans have long complained about players always leaving the club (when it isn’t exactly necessary or driven by club debts) and often criticise how many of these players go about it. Jordi Alba still feels the anger to this day, as do former captains Paco Alcacer and Roberto Soldado. Juan Mata doesn’t, even though he wanted to leave as well because he went about his exit with a lot of class. For once, Valencia had a captain that wanted to stay and retire at the club. Meriton drove him out using the excuse of the financial issues and his age. It isn’t the fact that they had to send him away because of his high salary that is the problem, it is how they have gone about it and one even has to question if that was the best solution.

To begin with, there are a lot of players in the squad who are dispensable and would fetch decent transfer fees and free up salary space. Most of them are still at the club. There is also the underlying Marcelino angle, as Dani Parejo was one of Marcelino’s ‘soldiers’ within the club and he led his teammates to ask questions about some of the decisions management was making. They didn’t like it and never forgot. In line with their pattern of vindictiveness – shown in how they have treated Marcelino’s memories and legacy at the club since his departure – they kicked him out just like they kicked out Garay, another player who was too close to Marcelino and had upset management with his social media post following the sack. It wasn’t even the fact his contract wasn’t renewed as it was expiring that was the problem, it was their handling of it. Garay had to come out to publicly defend himself against what he considered lies told by the club in a press release about his situation.

Parejo, on his part, was given out for free to Valencia’s local rivals Villarreal along with cult hero Francis Coquelin, who was undersold for a meagre €8m. Fans considered it an insult and it truly beggars belief that such deals happened. If the club is indeed in such a financially dire situation, why then would they give out their two starting midfielders and assets to direct rivals for a combined €8 million? Add to that, the club boasted about a youth policy but then lost one of their best youth prospects ever (despite having a whole year to get him to sign a new deal) for just about €23m when it was obvious they could have gotten way more. To make matters worse, their post announcing his departure was laced with bitterness and them sounding angry that he did not want to stay. Yet, they kicked out their captain and most important player who wanted to stay just a few weeks later.

Ultimately, things just don’t add up and the fans feel entitled to answers. They wonder why Valencia’s response to the financial crisis largely caused by the incompetence of Meriton on sporting matters is to get rid of its entire core, for cheap too. Parejo, Garay, Coquelin are all gone. Rodrigo is on his way out as well. Add Ferran and that’s five starters in the team with only one sale regarded as within acceptable value (Rodrigo). They wonder if there is any plan to keep Valencia competitive, especially considering the kind of replacements Valencia are linked to and the fact that Meriton are once again trying to fully run things on the sporting side – something which has proven to be a disaster in three out of three seasons. Now, without that core that has consistently carried the club, they wonder if the club would get anywhere near European football again, something which is badly needed to turn things around.

Meriton, feeling attacked, released an open letter written by president Anil Murthy himself. This letter drew more anger as many fans claimed it was full of discrepancies and outright falsehood, and it also saw Murthy pretty much blame everyone but Meriton for whatever problems Valencia were dealing with. This was in line with the Meriton way of doing things, constantly refusing to take responsibility for anything but patting themselves on the back for every little positive thing at the club.

Paco Polit, a Valencia reporter and fan of the club, released an analysis of the letter and debunked many of the claims made by Anil. This was not the first time such posts had been put out by the club through its official channels. In 2017, an editorial appeared on the club website in which the club described every fan who criticised as a “fake fan” and blamed such fans for all and sundry. Just like this recent Anil letter, it further alienated the fans and made them more incensed.

Six years since Meriton arrived, Valencia’s debts are still piling, no concrete progress has been made with the proposed new stadium that is now about 13 years old, the club selling off most of its sporting assets for ridiculously cheap prices, and the club is no closer to reaching the top or elite level. The club is now said to be unable to pay players’ salaries too and the players refused IOU notes issued by Anil Murthy, apparently because even they don’t trust anything he says. It has been reported that they would only accept it if it is coming from Peter Lim himself.

The many Meriton promises are far from being fulfilled and they constantly add fuel to the fire by patting themselves on the back for all sorts of things. The fans feel insulted by a lot of their actions and what they put out on social media, and rightly so. The protests are not likely to stop any time soon as fans turn the heat up, determined to keep fighting for the soul of their club until something changes, preferably Meriton finally leaving the club. It remains to be seen what plot twists await us in this soap opera.

Astorre S. Cerebronè

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