From a hero's welcome to street protests, what's next for Peter Lim and Valencia?
Gennaro Gattuso's appointment at Valencia on Thursday (June 9) is both a sign of intent and incongruence - the Italian is a World Cup winner and led Napoli to the 2020 Coppa Italia, but he is also the 11th manager the La Liga club have had since Peter Lim took over in 2014.
The 68-year-old Singaporean billionaire's personal involvement - he met Gattuso and his agent Jorge Mendes here - suggests he is in this project for the long haul.
But despite his commitment to the club and his reign having enjoyed some success, it seems Lim and his millions are unwelcome.
Already, fans have protested the signing of Gattuso over previous comments deemed sexist and homophobic, with the hashtag #NoToGattuso trending on Twitter.
Protests outside the Mestalla demanding Lim's exit and mass e-mails to Singapore media accusing him of "negligently managing the club", "deteriorating the value of the team" and "mistreating old legends and club workers" are regular occurrences.
The abuse led the club to disable the comments section on their social networks.
Yet, it was not too long ago that the business magnate received a hero's welcome from Valencianistas after his Meriton bought their club for €420 million (S$673.6 million), with €200 million to clear the club's €230 million debts and £170 million (S$293 million) to complete the construction of a new stadium.
The takeover effectively saved Valencia from bankruptcy and administration after years of mismanagement.
The honeymoon period appeared promising too, as Los Che finished fourth and qualified for the Champions League in Lim's first season in charge.
In a video posted on the club website then, he considered the management's biggest achievement was "to be able financially to put the club in the position to compete at a high level", adding: "The key is sustainability; it's not spending a lot of money one year and the next having to sell our best players to support the financial part of the company".
However, over the next few years, the boardroom, backroom and dressing room turnover rate has continued to be high, and Valencia are also in the process of appointing a new president following the departure of Singaporean Anil Murthy, who had made disparaging comments about Lim and other parties at a private event which were recorded and then published in Spanish media.
Players, former stalwarts and fans were up in arms after Marcelino was dismissed after delivering the 2019 King's Cup - the first trophy in the Lim era - and key players were sold at what they perceived to be cut-price.
For example, Joao Cancelo went to Juventus for €40.4 million in 2018 before the Italian side made a considerable profit a year on when Manchester City signed him for €65 million. Similarly, Ferran Torres joined City in 2020 for €33.5 million and moved on to Barcelona in January for €55 million.
The half-built new stadium, which Lim inherited and committed to completing, is still unfinished.
Covid-19 did not help as commercial income was halved, which resulted in Valencia prioritising financial prudence and stability when La Liga was first suspended and then played behind closed doors in 2020, which meant the club sold more senior players and relied more on academy products than signing established stars.
Lim's daughter Kim fanned the flames after she received abuse on social media that year, responding in an Instagram story: "Some Valencia fans are scolding and cursing at my family and I. Don't they get it? The club is ours and we can do anything we want with it. Deal with it."
In his commentary for ESPN, Spanish football journalist Sid Lowe wrote: "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."
Former Valencia vice-president Miguel Zorio is one such critic. On April 27, he tabled a takeover offer of €212 million, €36 million less than his offer last year, and almost half of what Lim's Meriton reportedly paid in 2014.
Zorio told The Sunday Times he wants to give Lim "a dignified exit", and said: "If we talk about the economic situation of the club, the debt has increased. If we talk about the social situation, Peter Lim has ostracised the Valencia supporters.
"If we talk about the political situation, Peter Lim has broken the commitments he made when buying the club: he has not finished the new stadium, he has not bought the land of the old stadium, he has not made a Champions League team."
Have results been that bad?
Yet, results on the pitch have been far from abject. There were clear misses such as the short-lived managerial appointment of Lim's business partner Gary Neville, and the questionable hiring of Chan Lay Hoon and Murthy - Singaporeans with no football experience - as club presidents, but Valencia have finished no lower than 13th under Lim's tenure.
They have also qualified for the Champions League thrice, and reached two Cup finals. This year, in the aftermath of the pandemic, they finished ninth and lost the King's Cup final to Real Betis on penalties, as youngsters like Georgian goalie Giorgi Mamardashvili, 21, and American midfielder Yunus Musah, 19, have impressed.
In comparison, Valencia's average La Liga position in the decade before Lim arrived was fifth, and they also won the 2008 King's Cup. However, this was achieved with overspending and unserviced debt.
James Walton, sports business group leader for Deloitte South-east Asia, said: "With only four Champions League qualification places available, these are usually taken up by Real Madrid, Barcelona and, in recent years, Atletico Madrid and Sevilla. Some other teams have surprised every now and then.
"Perhaps their fans were spoilt a little bit in the decade or two before in those days of winning titles and reaching Champions League finals, but there is no God-given right for Valencia to be there, and there are a lot of teams in Spain and around Europe that would be happy to have what Valencia have accomplished."
Clubs and foreign owners
Foreign club ownership is not an alien concept. In the 2021/22 La Liga season, Elche (Argentine), Mallorca (American), Espanyol and Granada (both Chinese), had foreign owners, while overseas investors have also bought heavily in the English Premier League and Italian Serie A.
Success has been mixed. Leicester's Thai owners in the King Power Group have endeared themselves to Foxes' fans after taking over in 2010 and delivering the 2016 EPL title. But the Glazers have been vilified since they took over Manchester United in 2005 and immediately loaded a £550 million debt on the club.
Then there is the X-word.
La Liga president Javier Tebas acknowledged there is "xenophobia" in Spain, as he backed Lim and said in 2020: "It's very difficult to evaluate how a club is run without knowing details. When Lim bought Valencia, I remember there were 25,000 people who turned up at the stadium to thank him.
"It seems as if we have forgotten that this man came along and avoided Valencia going into receivership, or even disappearing. Peter Lim has my full respect, as without being a Valencian he took this step."
Why hang on?
But with so much grief and volatility involved in owning a football club valued by KPMG to be worth €367 million but reported by The New York Times to be more than €400 million in debt, what is Lim holding out for?
In a 2021 Financial Times interview, he said owning Valencia has been "incredibly good for networking", and recounted a dinner with owners of top European clubs at a Champions League final.
He added: "You've got sheikhs, kings, mafia, black, white and yellow. And we were arguing about, 'Why did you buy this player for so much?' We were like kids... this game can equalise everything."
But Lim refuted accusations that he is using the club to line his own pockets, for example by trading players represented by Mendes, who is a personal friend and agent of superstar Cristiano Ronaldo, whose image rights Lim owns.
He said: "I can do 101 things to make money, and money that I believe I can better control. This is something quite nice. I wake up, I own a football club and I see what happens next. It's nothing more."
Walton also felt that with Lim previously making unsuccessful moves to buy Liverpool, Middlesbrough, AC Milan, Atletico, Deportivo La Coruna and Rangers, this may well be a passion project.
He noted: "The easiest way to be a millionaire is to be a billionaire and buy a football team.
"Peter Lim has always been very clear that he's in it for the long run and that he's committed to Valencia. He will leave only when it suits him and he feels he is leaving the club in good hands. And right now, he obviously doesn't feel that the journey is done and he still believes that it's in the best interests of the club for him to own it and run it.
"At the end of the day, as it always is with fickle fans, if they have a couple of seasons of success, and if some of the signings they make really pay off, the atmosphere can change for the better very quickly."
As Gattuso was introduced, Valencia's new general director, Singaporean Sean Bai, expressed the club's desire to work with stakeholders to build the club's identity and make "a great Valencia".
He said: "Through self-criticism, we are going to work hard to make our fans happy again and make them feel proud of their club. We think we have to be more open with our fans and closer to them. For this reason, we are going to reopen the comments on our social networks.
"However, these relationships between the club, the fans and everybody else must always show respect. In our decision-making, we always aim to increase the happiness, excitement and pride of our fans for our club.
"Sometimes we will have to make unpopular decisions aimed at the medium and long term, and with the sole purpose of continuing the greatness of this centenary club."
Simply put, Lim and his Singaporean team are here to stay.
Valencia squad expenditure and income under Peter Lim
2014-15: €53.3m spent/ €55.5m sold
2015-16: €143.9m/ €50m
2016-17: €36m/ €114.9m
2017-18: €55m/ €16.6m
2018-19: €129.2m/ €68.8m
2019-20: €75m/ €56.3m
2020-21: €0.05m/ €87.85m
2021-22: €12.85m/ €2.7m
Total: €505.3m/ €452.65m
*figures according to Transfermarkt