Over the years, Valencia Club de Futbol has taken the starring role in the city’s footballing productions, whilst Levante Unión Deportiva has had to make do with a place in the chorus line. There has been the occasional cameo appearance during its 102 year history, but most of the time Levante has spent its time scratching a living in the lower leagues. So few will begrudge Los Granotes moment in the spotlight when they topped La Primera at the start of the unpredictable 2011-12 season.
Founded as Levante Foot-Ball Club on 6 September 1909, it originally drew support from the tough working class district of Cabanyal and took its name from the nearby beach. Home matches were played at the tight and basic Camp de La Platgeta, but after a few years of competing in the regional championship, the senior team was dissolved and the club concentrated on junior football. The senior team was reformed in 1916 and once again competed in the regional championship. The top club in Valencia at this point was Gimnástico Foot-ball Club and in 1919 a new pretender arrived on the scene in the shape of Valencia CF. In the shadow of two more popular clubs, Levante moved in 1922 from the Camp de La Platgeta to the larger Camp de la Creu, which held 10,000 and was closer to the centre of the city, opening up the potential of new support.
Football all but petered out by late 1937 as Valencia came under heavy bombardment. Levante's Camp de la Creu was destroyed and when hostilities ceased and thoughts turned to football, an unlikely alliance was formed. Gimnástico had fallen on hard times during the mid 1930's and the quality of their playing staff had declined. They did however have a stadium, the Campo de Vallejo which had been their home since 1923. This was a compact arena that had a capacity of 10,000 and stood in the shadow of the convent of Nuestra Señora del Carmen, close to the north bank of the Rio Turia. Levante on the other hand, had some of the best players in the east of the country, but with no stadium and no friends in high places following their declared allegiance to the Republic. This unholy matrimony of left and right was forged over a two week period in July 1939, the result of which was Gimnástico's or the smaller ex-Levante fans, so in 1941 a compromise was found. The club would in future be called Levante Unión Deportiva, but play in Gimnástico's traditional colours of blue and red striped shirts. The first season under this new branding saw the club finish eighth and fall into the Tercera.
The next decade and a half saw Levante's fortunes fluctuate and the club spent equal amounts of time in the Tercera and La Segunda. Then in the late 1950's Levante started to look like serious challengers for a place in La Primera. Second place was achieved in 1958-59, but the play-offs cost the club dearly once again as Las Plamas ran out 3-1 winners on aggregate. Three consecutive sixth place finishes followed, before Levante gained a further runners-up spot in 1962-63.This time however, the play-offs were successfully navigated with a 4-1 aggregate win over Deportivo La Coruna. The club's debut season in La Primera was solid if unspectacular, with a tenth place finish. The following 1964-65 was a struggle however and despite a 5-1 win over Barcelona and a 2-1 victory over Valencia, the club finished fourteenth and faced CD Malaga in a relegation/promotion play-off. Malaga won 4-2 at La Rosaleda and sealed promotion with a goalless draw at Vallejo. The two season stay in the top flight had highlighted two important factors. Levante could attract decent attendances and the Camp de Vallejo was hopelessly outdated, even by 1960's standards. Two reasonable seasons in La Segunda followed, before the club bid farewell to the Vallejo with relegation to the Tercera.
The site of the old Camp de Vallejo was sold for housing and work started on a new stadium to the north of the city in 1968. Levante moved in with rivals Valencia for the 1968-69 season, but couldn't escape the grips of the Tercera and was firmly entrenched in the third division when the new stadium opened on 9 September 1969 with a friendly against their cross-city rivals. Named the Estadio Antonio Román after the club's president who brokered the move, the stadium was far from complete on its opening night, with no roof and the corner stands incomplete. Work progressed over the next couple of years to complete the bowl and add a strange crooked cantilevered roof over the west side. The stadium was renamed the Nou Estadi del Levante U.D in 1972 and Levante celebrated the completion of the stadium with promotion back to La Segunda. With a capacity of around 38,000 and Levante attracting four-figure crowds, the new ground seemed to be an unnecessary extravagance.
Extravagance is not a word one would associate with Levante's on pitch activity during their first 30 years in the new stadium. Designed to build on the club's Primera exploits of the mid-sixties, Levante spent three decades switching between the second, third and fourth levels, never once coming close to a return to the top flight. The best finish coming in 1980-81 when Dutch great Johan Cruyff helped the club to a ninth place finish in La Segunda. The stadium at this juncture was devoid of colour and with the exception of the handful of matches that featured Cruyff, rarely saw crowds in excess of 10,000. In 1999, the stadium was renamed the Estadi Ciudtat de Valencia in a deal with the local municipality. The whole stadium was bedecked in bands of red and blue seats and other facilities such as floodlights and the media centre were upgraded. Levante also won Promotion back to the second division in 1999 and the long and painful process of a return to the top tier began.
Two seasons of steady progress in La Segunda almost came undone in 2001-02 when Levante finished nineteenth and in the relegation zone. Luckily, Burgos CF's failure to pay its players resulted in their demotion and a reprieve for Levante. A fourth place finish was achieved a year later, then in 2003-04 Levante won the second division title for a second time. There would be no play-offs to trip them up this time and with German Coach Bernd Schuster at the helm, Levante made an impressive start to their first La Primera season for forty years. The results dried up in the second half of the campaign and Schuster was shown the door with five matches to go. Still five points clear of the relegation zone, Levante did not win another match and was relegated. Promotion back to the top flight was won just a year later and this time Levante managed to avoid relegation with a fifteenth place finish. The club invested in heavily in playing staff, but this plan back-fired and relegation and financial meltdown followed. The remaining players went unpaid for nearly a year and staged a series of sit-ins to highlight their plight. Despite this turmoil, Levante finished eighth in La Segunda and in the summer of 2009 Quico Catalán took over as President. With the lowest budget in the division, coach Luis Garcia Plaza steered the club towards its third and most remarkable promotion to La Primera in six seasons.
Eighteen later and Levante were the darlings of La Liga, defying the odds and sitting near the top of La Liga with the oldest and lowest paid squad in La Primera. It seems appropriate therefore that the club play in one of the oldest and least sophisticated stadiums in the top two divisions. Unchanged since the early 1970's apart from some seating and some superficial adornments, the Estadi Ciutat de Valencia is a relic of a time when stadiums where built big and basic. The main feature is the roof over the west side, which is a curious design that seems to defy gravity and logic. It starts off at the back of the stand looking like a conventional pitched roof, but there are no props. Then after 30 feet, the roof turns upwards and spreads wing-like over the seats in the lower tier. The rest is fairly formulaic fare, just an open bowl of seats and three floodlight towers that stand behind the east side. The symmetry of the bowl is however broken at the south end of the ground, where a section of the upper tier is missing. Is this a section that has been removed amid safety fears? No, quite simply, the club did not own the field adjacent to the stadium and simply built around that wedge of land. La Selección has played at the stadium on just the one occasion, but that didn't pass without incident. Playing Scotland in September 2004, the floodlights failed after 57 minutes with the score at 1-1 and the match was abandoned.
Levante would be better served by a modern, more compact stadium. Plans were in place for a return to their original dockland suburbs and a 40,000 seat arena. As always, this is dependent on raising the necessary funds and the sale of the land on which the current stadium stands is central to that. Enthusiasm for the project has cooled after the clubs protracted financial woes and if they need a remainder of how a stadium project can go belly-up, they only need to look a mile or so south at the Nou Mestalla project to receive a reality check. So Los Granotes or the frogs as they are affectionately referred to, will carry on at the Estadi Ciutat de Valencia for the foreseeable future. Pay them a visit, but don't turn up expecting comfort and corporate entertainment, just enjoy the current fairytale where this frog has turned into a prince.
|Crests through the ages - 1919, the merger of 1939 and present day|
|Levente - Winners of the one and only Copa de la España Libre|
|Home for 29 years - Campo de Vallejo|
|Hemmed in on all sides, the Campo de Vallejo was demolished in 1968|
|Look, I accept that this was not one of the stadium's better looks|
|Now that's better. Estadi Ciudad de Valencia with its new colour scheme|
|The main stand with its deep, dark and cranky roof|
|Old and with a history of under investment. As for the stadium...|