Dubai: Not many would be willing to step into the shoes of Manuel Llorente, president of Valencia CF, the debt-ridden giants of Spanish football.
While the club still ranks as the third force in the all-time table of La Liga, they are saddled with a huge debt — thanks largely to an unfinished new stadium project and the economic recession gripping Spain.
Even since taking charge of the beleaguered club in 2009, Llorente has been always proactive though to find a solution to their woes — from selling off some of their star players to generate revenue to jetting down to Dubai in search of much-needed commercial partnership with Gulf investors.
A hard-as-nails administrator who does not shy away from taking unpleasant decisions (like replacing long-time manager Umai Emery with the younger Mauricio Pellegrino few months back), Llorente, however, is a football romantic who believes the game is not all about money and a team can be turned around with the virtues of good management and teamwork. Following are the excerpts of the exclusive interview:
Gulf News: What kind of opportunities are you exactly looking for in Dubai?
Manuel Llorente: This is our first visit to the Emirates (UAE) during which our goal is to establish a relationship with corporate houses, government and even Dubai Sports Council. There are a lot of opportunities — we are looking for commercial partners and also the opportunity to open an academy in Dubai, Abu Dhabi or both.
Only a few days back, a Dubai-based financial company announced a takeover of Leeds United. However, Valencia is a much bigger brand name…
Let me make one thing clear, Valencia is not for sale but we are open to any kind of business opportunity. Yes, there is a perception that we can be very costly but we are cheaper than most other big clubs. We are definitely fascinated by the UAE which is a land of opportunities…we are amazed by what work the government is doing here. We are happy to explore the market here and expect to come back in another couple of months.
What is your game plan to make Valencia, which belonged to the G-14 group of superpower clubs, financially strong again?
Our main agenda is to finish the new stadium in Nou Mestalla. Once we change the stadium, we plan to sell off the old one which will reduce our liabilities. At the same time, we have to ensure that the level of the team does not dip in European competitions. Despite the financial problems, we are still one of the top 10 Uefa clubs like AC Milan, Manchester City etc. We had entered into a tie-up with Bankia for a loan to complete the stadium in 2010 but the overpowering recession in the country has spoiled the plan. The European Union has now taken control of Bankia and stalling such investments. Hence, we are looking for other ways to finance the new stadium and we need 150 million euros more for the same.
Can you do some number-crunching about the exact debt figures?
When I took charge of the club in 2009, the overall debt of the club was in the region of €550 million (Dh2.6 billion). In the last two years, I have sold players like David Villa, David Silva and Juan Mata and now the debt has come down to €350 million. It’s a good achievement but the potential of the club is much more as its properties are worth at least €650 million. We can grow much more if we can finish the stadium.
How do you hope to sustain yourselves against the buying powers of a Manchester City, Chelsea or Paris Saint Germain?
Yes, it is very difficult to complete with these clubs but with good management and teamwork, it’s possible — because football is not only about money. In the past, there had been a big gap between us and clubs like Real Madrid or Barcelona but we have managed to do well in La Liga, Spanish Cup and Champions League.
Looking back, the club has had a very good time between 1999 and 2004 during which Valencia won the La Liga twice and made the final of Champions League. How do you rate yourselves vis-a-vis the leading European clubs?
If you ask me, we find it more difficult to play Barcelona or Real than other European clubs. This is because of the presence [Lionel] Messi in Barca, the greatest footballer now, and it’s like playing the national team, while Real boasts of an exceptional talent like [Cristiano] Ronaldo. The Spanish League, according to me, is the best in the world while the English Premiership is marketed more aggressively and successfully.
In comparison, we can challenge teams like City, Chelsea or Bayern Munich because we have played them so many times recently.
As an administrator in Spanish football, how long do you think Spain can maintain this level of supremacy in global football?
There are two separate areas: the La Liga and the national team. Spain’s pipeline of talent is much more than say England. Even after the so-called ‘golden generation’ who won the World Cup and Euros, the Spanish team has a generation of players who can sustain the future of the team for at least the next five years.