Valencia’s Nou Mestalla ‘ghost ground’: After 15-year delay, will it finally be built?

Valencia’s Nou Mestalla ‘ghost ground’: After 15-year delay, will it finally be built?

The cheers rang long and loud around Valencia’s Mestalla Stadium as fans celebrated Hugo Guillamon’s late equaliser against Barcelona in their final home match before La Liga’s Christmas break.

Four kilometres away, on the other side of Valencia’s old city centre, all was quiet around the site of the Nou Mestalla — where the club’s half-built new home has sat untouched for the past 15 years.

Through all that time, one of La Liga’s most storied clubs has found itself stuck in this bizarre situation — unable to raise the money to finish a modern new ground, unable to sell its historic home.

Meanwhile, a team used to competing at the highest level in national and European competition has found itself fighting relegation, with the club’s historic debts becoming ever more difficult to deal with.

On a recent visit to Spain’s third biggest city, The Athletic took 20 minutes just to walk around the perimeter of the huge Nou Mestalla site. Inside the high steel fence around the huge concrete bowl there was no human presence, just eerie stillness and silence.

Locals went about their business without even looking, long accustomed to a situation which remains a huge embarrassment for many in the city.

But outside events, including funding organised by La Liga and the possibility of hosting some games at the World Cup in 2030, have now opened up the possibility of a solution finally being found.

“I believe it is now or never for the new stadium,” club president Lay Hoon Chan told sceptical fans at the club’s annual general meeting on December 14.

Can Valencia really resolve its unique ‘two stadiums’ problem? And will the team really benefit?

All the way back on November 10 2006, Valencia president Juan Soler presented the proposed design for a 75,000 seater ‘Nuevo Mestalla’. He told those assembled in the impressive futuristic surroundings of Valencia’s City of Arts and Sciences that it would be “the best stadium in the world”, and its site would include 25,000 square metres of shops, cinemas and themed restaurants.

“This stadium represents the wish of ‘Valencianismo’ to become an example in the world of football,” Soler said.

The original design for the Nou Mestalla, unveiled in 2006 (Arup)

“We want the 2010 Champions League final played here,” said city mayor Rita Barbera to rapturous applause from those present, including regional president Francisco Camps.

Soler’s plan was to borrow the €260million (£224m; $284m at current exchange rates) required from local banks to build on a site across town provided by the local council. The money would be repaid by selling the existing Mestalla stadium for development. The move would even be profitable, it was said, taking advantage of a booming property market in the city.

Work began with engineers Arup Sport and builders FCC Construcciones and Grupo Bertolin on August 1 2007. Within months came the first signs that Spain’s property bubble was bursting, and a bank crisis quickly followed. Soler stepped down as Valencia president in March 2008, citing “health concerns”, and it soon emerged the club owed almost €550million.

On February 25 2009, a decision was made under new president Juan Soriano to temporarily halt all work on the new stadium. Around €100million had already been spent, and the initial concrete bowl base had been constructed. But there was no money to add the striking reflective aluminium skin on top, and borrowing was impossible.

In the 14 years since, four different club presidents — Manuel Llorente, Amadeo Salvo, Lay Hoon Chan and Anil Murthy — have each presented new and different plans for the stadium. Each model has been progressively more modest (or realistic) about the design, capacity and budget that could be possible.

But through those years nothing has changed at the Avenida de los Cortes Valencianas, apart from the peeling of paint and spreading of weeds around the half-finished structure.

When Singapore-based businessman Peter Lim took majority control of Valencia in 2014, he said the team would celebrate its centenary at the Nou Mestalla. That passed in 2019 at the old ground, which itself celebrated its 100th birthday last May.

“The new stadium was always on the agenda when we had board meetings but there was little indication of how to proceed,” a former director under Lim says. Two different Nou Mestalla projects were announced (in 2017 and 2020), but no real progress was made.

Valencia’s unfinished Nou Mestalla has been left standing still since February 2009 (The Athletic)

The situation only really changed in December 2021, with La Liga’s €2billion deal with CVC Capital Partners. Of the €120m due to Valencia, €80m had to be spent on infrastructure. Murthy quickly said that the full amount would be put towards fixing its two-stadium problem, and set a new possible date of September 2022 to get work started again.

The €80million was approximately half of what the club needed to finish Nou Mestalla. The board now became more “proactive” in raising the rest, according to a source involved in that process — who, like all those cited here, requested to speak anonymously to protect relationships.

It was always clear that using the proceeds of the sale of the old Mestalla site to at least part-finance the move was difficult. Various plans with different local developers and a housing co-operative have been floated over the years, but no binding contracts signed.

Current president Lay Hoon said at December 2023’s AGM that they now have “advanced negotiations” with a new buyer for the old stadium site. But multiple sources say nobody will commit to buying an apartment in a place where a football team is currently playing, especially when nobody can confirm when that team will leave.

Valencia’s historical financial issues, which have not improved under Lim’s control, also make further borrowing difficult. The latest accounts show total debts of almost €500million — €134m short-term and €335m long-term liabilities. Among these is an €89m loan with local lender Caixabank, for which the old stadium is collateral. In the words of one former club executive: “If you sell this site, you have to pay off the bank — not use the money to build the new stadium.”

More useful is the possibility of selling part of the Nou Mestalla site. The initial plan always included the construction of two towers nearby, with over 40,000 square metres of space for hotel, commercial and residential use. In March 2023, a potential deal was agreed with local investors Atitlan, controlled by the Roig family who own Spanish supermarket chain Mercadona. This would provide over €30million, once the new stadium was completed. The club are also counting on about €5m from the sale of the club’s offices — across the street from their current home — with a hotel potentially to be built on that site.

Valencia plan to have the stadium completed by 2026 (Xisco Navarro/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Valencia say this €115million financing is enough to restart work on the half-completed stadium. They calculate they would still need to raise around 15 per cent of the total cost of €340m from banks or investment funds, but that would not be needed until the final stages of the construction project. The club denies local media reports that they have already organised two loans — €15m from Caixabank (who have the mortgage on the old stadium) and €15m from English fund Rights and Media Funding Limited (who in November 2021 “advanced” €51m to Valencia in exchange for a percentage of future TV rights).

Nobody around Valencia doubts that it makes sense to spend the CVC money on the project. But the hugely indebted club taking on even more liabilities worries many supporters. Others argue that finishing the new stadium is key to finally turning the club’s finances around. Nobody can really say for sure.

One thing everyone accepts is that the current Nou Mestalla project is a less ambitious version of the “best stadium in the world” announced almost two decades ago now.

The original architects, now called Fenwick Iribarren, have maintained their connection through that time, regularly adapting the design to different financial realities and evolving industry best practices.

“Everybody has to admit that we’ve gone from an economically difficult time, but austerity doesn’t mean it can’t be a stupendous, magnificent stadium and a source of pride for the Valencia CF fans,” co-founder Mark Fenwick said in 2022.

The current project is to have 66,000 seats, which can be expanded over time to 70,016. The previous design included an aluminium skin over the existing concrete base, but that has been changed to a less-expensive facade. “It is a more open, airy concept,” says a source involved in the planning, who adds this should be thought of as reflecting a “Mediterranean experience”.

The updated design for Valencia’s Nou Mestalla (Valencia CF)

Some 4,500 of the seats will be designated for VIPs or used in hospitality at different levels, including nine ‘Mediterranean terraces’ where fans can eat a paella with views of the pitch. The objective is to double the club’s matchday income, from its current €15million to €30m per year.

Generating income 365 days a year is key, including for La Liga executives who closely oversee the spending of all CVC money. Valencia staff are also very keen to link to the local community. Restaurants will be open all week, while the club hopes to attract regular business conferences and concerts. The current design includes a creche and discotheque, and one of the biggest photovoltaic roofs in Europe, which could potentially provide power to the local grid in future.

Those involved in the project strongly reject any ‘low-cost’ description. They admit that it will not rival the redeveloped Estadio Santiago Bernabeu for luxury facilities, but say its €5,000-per-seat cost is comparable to Atletico Madrid’s Estadio Metropolitano, which hosted the 2019 Champions League final.

A concern, both inside and outside the club, is the capacity. Valencia have just over 38,500 season ticket holders, and its current stadium’s 2022-23 average attendance was 41,667. “How to make a stadium of 70,000 commercially viable or sustainable was always the biggest challenge,” says a former club executive. 

There is an acknowledgement that Valencia, while a beautiful city to visit, does not attract the same tourist numbers as Madrid or Barcelona. The city of 800,000 does not have the affluent business community of a global hub like London or Milan. The City of Arts of Sciences area, and the 18,000-seater ‘Roig Arena’ basketball pavilion currently under construction, provide competition for events and concerts.

If Valencia were starting from scratch on a new ground they would have much more flexibility. But they are in the situation they are in — with a half-built stadium which needs to be finished somehow — and have to make the best of that reality.

Raising the money to restart work at the half-finished stadium, and making the design more realistic and sensible, was not easy for the current Valencia hierarchy. Another challenge was securing the necessary construction permits and licences.

A major sticking point through the different revisions of the plan has been a 13,000 square metre sports centre, with gym, swimming pool and courts for tennis and padel, promised to city hall by Soler back in 2006.

Subsequent presidents have all wanted to scale back this €10million state-of-the-art facility (as the stadium design has been). Barbera’s successor, Joan Ribo of the left-wing Compromis coalition, believed it vitally important for residents of its working-class Benicalap neighbourhood. Lim’s strong unpopularity with Valencia fans has given local politicians of any stripe little incentive to help him out.

The election of Maria Jose Catala of the centre-right Partido Popular as city mayor in June 2023 led to optimism in the club that a resolution could be found. That seemed misplaced when Catala said in August that “New Mestalla is a disgrace”, and they would “concede nothing” to Lim.


Valencia’s protesting fan groups and the plan to prise back their football club

Then, in October 2023, Spain was named as a co-host of the 2030 World Cup, along with Portugal and Morocco. Within a month the Valencian regional government, the city’s mayor and Valencia CF sent letters to the Spanish Football Federation saying work on the Nou Mestalla site would restart within the first half of 2024 and be completed by 2026.

For a World Cup to take place in Spain, but Valencia not to host any games, is unthinkable for some in the city. Lim’s critics worry this provides leverage during negotiations over issues such as the public sports centre and re-zoning of the old Mestalla site. “Peter Lim is using the World Cup to blackmail the town hall,” says a former Valencia executive.

The mayor claims to still be playing hardball with Valencia. Catala said she now wanted work to start on the stadium, before beginning negotiations for a new ‘covenant’ to redevelop the old Mestalla. “Valencia must take the first step, and that way recover the confidence of the city,” she said in early November.

Valencia owner Lim (centre) and former club president Murthy (left) in 2017 (Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)

From outside, it resembles a high-stakes poker game between the city authorities and Valencia hierarchy. “All sides are waiting for the other party to make the first commitment,” says someone previously involved in talks. “That is the biggest obstacle in this whole project.”

A key broker in this game is now Jose Maria Olano, a lawyer hired by city hall from consultants KPMG to oversee the Nou Mestalla project and the redevelopment of the city’s port. Opposition parties in the town hall loudly voiced concerns, given Lim is a long-term KPMG client. An internal report was commissioned, which quickly cleared Olano of any conflict of interest.

Amid all the politicking, it is very difficult for Valencia fans to know exactly what is going on. Those disillusioned by the drop in the team’s level during Lim’s decade in charge remember it was local politicians who organised the club’s sale to the Singapore businessman as it favoured local banks. The same local banks that still hold the majority of the club’s continuing huge debts.

Some in Valencia would like the local authorities to include Lim’s exit from Valencia as a precondition for any new ‘covenant’ involving the old Mestalla. But those involved in the project view this as unrealistic.

“Here everyone wants to use Valencia for their own benefit, whether in local politics, sports politics, or construction projects,” says a former club director. “But the football club could end up ruined.”

“Since my return to the club last week we’ve had many difficult meetings with local politicians to advance the project,” said president Lay Hoon at Valencia’s club AGM on December 14. “Now, we just need to get the licence to restart work. We want to help Valencia be a host at the World Cup 2030, it would be good for the city.”

Club staff say that everyone is very keen to get going as soon as possible, and all the documentation requested by the town hall has been provided, so work could begin on the new stadium site within the first quarter of 2024. It would then take approximately two years to complete. All being well, the team could be playing in their new home for the start of the 2026-27 season (and further work to extend the capacity could then take place ahead of the 2030 World Cup).

It is striking that Valencia’s website does not have that much detail about the exact plan. There are some “simulated” images but little of the fanfare or pride coming from other clubs redeveloping their stadiums, such as Real Madrid, Barcelona, Real Betis or Sevilla. “If it was really going to be so marvellous, they would want to tell everyone,” says one Los Che fan. “But they are not.”

The hope among the wider Valencian community is that finally finishing the new stadium would launch the team towards a better future. But those who have learned to be sceptical of both the club hierarchy and the local authorities wonder whether the final cost will be a further weight for the already hugely indebted club to carry.

The Athletic heard both arguments during conversations with many knowledgeable local sources in recent weeks. But the truth is that Valencia fans have been waiting almost two decades for their new stadium to be completed, and nobody really knows when that will happen, nor what it will mean for the club’s future.

(Top photo: Jeroen Meuwsen/Soccrates/Getty Images)