Out of the mouth of babes. Out of their Instagram, anyway, a bible verse for our times. Children and fools tell the truth, the proverb goes -- and, like it or not, this was true, a reminder of an inescapable reality. Not just in Valencia, either, but that was where it hit home hardest. It was 3 a.m. Spanish time, 9 a.m. in Singapore, last Thursday when Peter Lim's daughter Kim said it.
"The club is ours," she wrote, "and we can do anything we want with it."
Valencia is theirs, it's true. Well, it belongs to her dad: Peter Lim's Meriton Holdings has owned a controlling stake in the club since May 2014, over 80% of the shares. And what they had just done was sack Albert Celades, the manager they had brought in to be more malleable, and replace him with a familiar face: Salvador González Marco, "Voro", the club's very own Mr. Wolf, has just been made Valencia's emergency coach for a sixth time, reluctantly finding himself on another rescue mission to clean up the mess and make sure they qualify for European football.
Knocked out of the Champions League 8-2 on aggregate by Atalanta, with the defence falling apart, tension growing and Celades reportedly going head to head with striker Maxi Gómez -- literally -- the club needed a change. In Voro's first game last week, they were beaten 2-0 by Athletic Club, followed by a draw against Granada and a late winner to beat Real Valladolid. They're currently eighth in La Liga, three points from the UEFA slots. Getting there won't be easy: leading striker Rodrigo Moreno is injured and will miss the rest of the season... by which time they'll be looking for a new manager.
The idea is that Voro manages the team until the end of the season when he'll go back to doing something else. When he hasn't been manager over the years -- for 5, 1, 2, 3, and 25 games respectively -- he has mostly been match-day delegate. Whoever replaces him will begin the tenth managerial spell of the Lim era at Valencia, the seventh permanent appointment in six years. When Lim bought the club, Juan Antonio Pizzi was the manager. He was replaced for the beginning of the new season by Nuno Espirito Santo. Then came Voro, Gary Neville, Pako Ayestaran, Voro, Cesare Prandelli, Voro, Marcelino García Toral and Celades.
Following Celades's sacking, César Sánchez resigned his post as sporting director. He had followed Rufete, Alexanco and García Pitarch. Vicente Rodríguez and Pablo Longoria have also left the department. Ambassador Mario Kempes, perhaps the greatest player in their history, has walked away disillusioned: he's a critic of how the club is run, a sense of sadness in almost everything he says.
Last year, Valencia celebrated their centenary by winning the Copa del Rey, their first trophy in a decade. There was apparent peace at last, success, stability and structure at a club long since prone to self-destruction. But soon, Marcelino was sacked and then director general, Mateu Alemany, left too. The split was acrimonious and no one was happy.
Alemany and Marcelino were seen as the architects of the club's success, which was probably part of the problem. But this ran deeper too: there was mutual suspicion, a breakdown in relationships, power battles and arguments over the direction the club should go in and who should be at the wheel; hints too of something a little darker. Not one to keep silent, Marcelino publicly questioned the club over their attempts to sell Rodrigo, to give just one example. That was an open challenge; it was also, inevitably, the end.
Celades was supposed to be a club man, which is to say a Meriton man. He would calm things down -- the dressing room had rebelled, speaking out publicly when Marcelino was sacked -- and follow the owners' plans. He was an employee, he knew. And everyone else knew that too, very clearly. Now, he has gone as well. Very different reasons but the same fate.
Fans were furious then, and they are furious now. There are doubts not just about how the club is being managed but why. Many see Lim, rarely seen in Valencia, as an intruder with ulterior motives. They distrust his business partners. They see the mistakes made, the direction taken, and fear the worst. Put simply, they don't like it. Looking at the way things have gone, few can doubt they have their reasons.
There is, though, an unpleasant undercurrent to some of the criticism, expressed in the demand: Lim Go Home. (And yet one of the criticisms is that he doesn't leave home often enough, a rare presence at Mestalla). That becomes abuse easily, often appalling. There have been racist insults from a small minority. Anil Murthy, the president, has faced some of the worst of it, challenging racist "t--ts" (his words). Social media allows abuse, of all sorts, to be delivered easily and directly, at least via proxy, eclipsing everything else. And Kim, not for the first time, reacted.
A few hours later she had deleted her post, but it was too late, and it had revealed a reality, stripping everything down to a fundamental fact. The heart of the battle. (And heart may well be the word.) The heart of the club too.
"Some Valencia fans are scolding and cursing at my family and I," Kim said. "Don't they get it? The club is ours and we can do anything we want with it. Deal with it."
It was a message -- blunter, more direct, but not so different -- that recurs. There has been little warmth between owners and fans. Within the club, there is a current of opinion that wants to take on, rather than embrace or seek rapprochement, with old, entrenched power bases. To challenge and defeat those who on some level have represented Valencia over the years, or thought they have; those who have laid some claim on ownership: supporters' groups, media, former players, local authorities.
There has been a curious determination from the ownership to assert their own authority. Lim's arrival rescued Valencia from administration, after years of mismanagement and self-destruction. Their best players departed annually. They had two stadiums: one they couldn't sell and one they couldn't build, with work on the new Mestalla halted since 2009. And they were €365m in debt.
This is the truth that the club believe fans don't see -- although those three things are still true; the debt is bigger now, in fact: €560m, although it is serviceable. The club's owners believe they are due thanks, not criticism.
They have seen those at or around the club before them as a challenge, not allies. And, from their perspective as new owners, they haven't always been wrong. But the owners haven't won over those people -- fans, media, former players, local authorities -- haven't built a watertight argument, and haven't even taken the usual steps clubs take to win them over. There has been relatively little sensibility with supporters; instead, there have been statements of fact. It has been remarkably blunt, if not quite as blunt as the way Kim put it.
A few hours after she posted her response, Kim's brother Kiat engaged in an online discussion with a local journalist and was far more conciliatory, not least because the way he was addressed was different. He noted that Lim is 70, making him too old to travel often; he admitted that while there may be differences of opinion over the path to be taken everyone's aim remains the same, a successful club; and said that Valencia club must "keep the true fans in consideration."
True fans, that says. Not true owners, the formula favoured by most actual owners -- a communion sought, at least on the service. Soon after, the association of club's supporters sent a letter to the club rightly demanding "respect". "Meriton Holdings is the majority shareholder," it read, "but it will never be the owner of the club, still less the opinion of all its fans."
Only it is, they know only too well.
Not least because Valencia keep reminding them; it drives what they do. That proprietorial posture is striking, a determination to reassert their authority. Most clubs talk about "the club" -- the ownership group rarely gets a mention. At most clubs, you might be pressed to know what the ownership group is even called. Most clubs talk about the fans as the true owners of the club, even if they don't mean it. And, let's face it, most don't. At Valencia, by contrast, Meriton is front and centre.
When Valencia bade farewell to Celades, saying thanks for his work, a graphic tagged the picture of his successes -- victory over Ajax, for example -- "Manager: Celades. Owner: Meriton."
It was not particularly diplomatic; it was far from conciliatory, clumsy even. In essence, it was a message no different to what Kim said. Nor is the reality so different to so many other clubs, an inescapable fact; what makes it unusual is the willingness to say so, to insist upon it. At heart, that message, that situation, is the same as the one Kim conveyed, the innocence (or arrogance?) of youth blurting out the truth, and doing so more bluntly than she should have.
And there it was, the naked truth at Valencia and so many places. In 1989, a new decree, made law in 1990, obliged every club to become a private company. Only Madrid, Barcelona, Athletic and Osasuna were exempt. It was a response to a financial crisis that was, in fact, about to get deeper under the new system, the "remedy" worse than the ailment. Some succeeded but all over the country, clubs fell into the wrong hands, again and again. There is a reason so many needed rescuing, and a price to be paid for that, fans so often disenfranchised, powerless to prevent the destruction of the thing they love the most, at the mercy of men that a lot of the time they may not trust entirely but in whose hands much of their happiness lies.
"It's our club and we can do what we like with it." And what, fans fear, is that?
"Don't they get it?" Kim asked. Yes, they get it. They know. And that's what worries them. That's what hurts.