The crowd slowly ambled into Ciudad Deportiva de Paterna under azure skies on a sunny morning. Flags and banners unfurled one by one across the stands. The light chatter that filled the air soon coalesced into a hearty hubbub of cheers.
Valencia CF Femenino started – and ended the day still – in the bottom 3. But the positive vibe that Batzine felt there last Sunday was the opposite one would expect from a struggling team. And if you thought the players were cowed by the visit of powerhouses Atletico Madrid, think again.
Captain Marta Carro, a tigerish presence in midfield, was gushing over her young nephew Mateo in the tunnel. Her teammates surrounded them, and it seemed the little one gave them the extra spark needed.
A deafening roar greeted Valencia as the players entered the Estadio Antonio Puchades, home of the Femenino, VCF U-19 and VCF Mestalla. Mateo looked slightly bewildered at the reception but was game for the team photo before kickoff. But beyond the fanfare, results are all that matters. And our side absolutely got the memo to claim a 1-1 draw.
It was hard work. Only 11 minutes had elapsed before Atletico’s South African forward Thembi Kgatlana pounced on a loose ball in the box – following a point-blank save by keeper Enith Salon – to make it 1-0. Valencia right-back Kerlly Real pounded the turf in frustration.
The goal riled up the nearly 300 fans. Whistles and some choice words were aimed at the officials as fouls against the home side went uncalled. Valencia head coach Andrea Esteban was an animated figure along the touchline, wildly gesturing at her players to press on.
The home side was under siege for long periods. But the noise never died. Salvation came 10 minutes before half-time.
An outswinging corner was met by Carro, who had evaded her marker and sent a looping header that dropped into the net to send the stands into raptures. Formerly on the books of Atletico, the captain raised both hands in muted celebration while her teammates mobbed her.
From then on it was the Enith show. The 20-year-old stopper put in an inspired shift, performing instinctive saves for days and in the final moments, clawed away a deflected shot that would have almost certainly been a goal.
The final whistle was the cue for embraces all round. Fans streamed down for photos, and the players obliged. The ball girls also looked in awe of their heroes – they too dream of donning the Los Che badge someday. In Valencia, you are not just a player, staff or fan. You are part of a family.
This was a warrior’s performance. More needs to be done as there is a mountain to climb, but having already faced the top 5 teams and Real Madrid, Valencia can focus on racking up the points starting this weekend. And you know what? Perhaps the women’s comeback motivated the men to do the same at Mestalla against the same opponents that afternoon.
Mateo was back on the pitch dribbling a ball almost half his size at full-time. Decked in an orange jersey, his bright colours matched the mood in Valencia all day long.