Valencia's Mata looks likely to exit
Valencia's financial problems means the club will continue to sell prize assets
Juan Mata is the latest star that is likely to leave for a price of $35 million
Mata flourished at Valencia even after the departures of other stars
Once the tipping point is reached departures become inevitable and the slide becomes harder to arrest than ever; what starts as an emergency solution risks becoming a permanent situation, the enshrinement of inequality and the inability to compete. Handled well, the effects can be palliated but, barring a sudden shift, the trend is unavoidable. Spanish soccer has reached that tipping point. Valencia certainly have.
David Silva and David Villa had to leave Valencia. The consequences of them staying were unthinkable. Lumbered with two stadiums -- one they could not sell and one they could not afford to finishing building, standing as an empty monument to the collapse in Spain's economy and the construction industry in particular, as well as the wastefulness of the former owner -- the club faced the possibility of disappearing altogether.
Manolo Llorente, the president, had rescued Valencia with the assistance of the local government but still needed to service the debt left by predecessor Juan Soler. Silva and Villa were the key, bringing in almost €80 million ($112M) with their moves to Manchester City and Barcelona respectively.
But if the consequences of them staying were unthinkable, the consequences of them going are concerning too. The initial, crippling debt remains and will do so until Valencia can find a buyer for Mestalla and, allied to the direction that Spanish soccer has taken, that serves to eclipse the country's "other" clubs -- of which Valencia is the strongest, finishing third for the last two years. The realization of that very fact only hastens it. When Silva and Villa left, they made the departure of other players all the more probable.
The tipping point had been reached. When Silva and Villa left, Valencia rebuilt remarkably well. With a sensible plan, and led by determined, skillful negotiators, they constructed a competitive side and still had a profit in excess of €45 million ($63M). But it was not competitive enough. Valencia won the league in 2002 and 2004. This season it finished 21 points behind second placed Real Madrid. And that was an improvement on last season.
Valencia is one problem, and the debt remains a hungry one. The players, conditioned by that situation, are another. All players want to win things; good players think they have to. When you can't compete, you leave. And when you depart, the team you leave behind can compete even less. It is a vicious circle. The hierarchy of clubs gets ever more defined. So far this summer, Valencia has been among the most active clubs in the transfer window.
Dani Parejo and Diego Alves have signed already. But that is a prelude to movement in the other direction.
The man nearest the exit door is Juan Mata -- both because he wants to compete and because Valencia know that he is the player most likely to raise a sizable transfer fee. He would make a superb signing for any number of clubs joining the queue.
Mata stepped out of the shadow of Villa and Silva to become the central figure for Valencia this season. Now, someone else will have to do the same.
Last summer Barcelona were among Mata's potential destinations; this summer, England is. Liverpool is a genuine possibility. Last summer resistance was possible with Silva and Villa to sell; this year it is futile. The good news for Valencia comes in the shape of a check for around €25 million ($35M), another lifeline provided by selling off the family silver.
The price may be a little steep but Mata is worth it. The son of a soccer player, he joined Real Oviedo at 12 and Real Madrid at 15. He won the European U-19 Championships with Spain in 2006 and was second top scorer, named Player of the Tournament. The Real Madrid Castilla side he joined in Spain's Second Division included Jordi Codina, Miguel Torres, Sergio Sánchez, Javi García, Estéban Granero, Rubén de la Red (who has been forced to retire with heart trouble), Adrián, and Álvaro Negredo. All of them are First Division players, but only one of those is still at Madrid -- and Esteban Granero returned to the club after a spell at Getafe. Opportunities were limited. So Mata, too, moved on -- forcing an exit to join Valencia at 19.
And that is where he met Ronald Koeman. Koeman is not exactly popular in the East coast: when Valencia sacked coach Quique Sanchez-Flores in week nine of the 2007-08 season, it was in fourth place, just four points off the top of the table; when it finally sacked Koeman, his replacement, they were 35 points off the top and just two points clear of the relegation zone. It had secured its worst away result in 25 years, its captain had taken the club to court, and players were queuing to leave.
But Koeman was largely obliged to act as he did by Soler. And, besides, he did one good thing: he gave Mata a chance, putting him into the side on the left of a front three, cutting in from the wing and combining with David Villa.
Few had heard of him at the start of the season; by the end, he had scored twice against Barcelona on the way to winning the Copa del Rey and was a virtual ever-present after Koeman took charge, playing 24 league games and scoring five goals.
The following year, with Koeman gone but the case convincingly made, Mata scored 11 times. The year after that, five. Then, last year, nine. A World Cup win followed, as did the match ball -- "stolen" and spirited away under his shirt. That was not the only thing spirited away: so were Silva and Villa. Valencia had to sell and it had to compete. Together, they are almost the paradigm of the player that leaves La Liga's lesser lights, big teams that can't quite be big enough: either you join Madrid or Barcelona or you leave Spain altogether.
It could have derailed Mata. The men he combined with best had gone; men he got on well with off the pitch as well as on it. Instead, at 22, he took responsibility. Intelligent and instantly likable, he has studied at university and is making strides with his English. Mata has been a remarkably consistent performer in at team that has often been erratic.
Fast, skillful, and creative -- dangerous heading up the left wing or inside from the right, dashing from deeper beyond the front two -- he has an impeccable touch and swift, precise passing. As he has shown at the European U-21 championships, he can also take a more central, playmaker's role.
He scored 10 times and provided 12 assists. Only four players provided more. And those are the ones that were taken: he provided 73 assists in total last season.
At the end of the season, the soccer statisticians at Opta put together a team of the season. Mata was one of only two outfield players included to play for one of Spain's "other" clubs - the other was Santi Cazorla. The pity is that when that happens, they tend not to be playing for one of those other clubs for very much longer.