The name Francisco (Paco) Cabanes may not ring many bells, even among born and bred Valencians. However, there are not many Valencians who have not heard of ‘El Genovés’.
El Genovés is to Valencian pelota, what Mozart is to classical music, or Mozart and Bach if you want to get technical.
Valencian pelota is (unsurprisingly) a game that has traditionally been played in Valencia, although there are variations of the game all over Spain, and indeed all over the world; and Paco Cabanes is a man who is very much aware that his sport, which is and has been his life, forms part of a historical, world-wide tradition. During our conversation he mentioned the Ancient Greeks and the Mayas as two examples of civilisations who played very similar games, although it is in fact a series of games rather than just one. He could also have mentioned the Japanese and Egyptians.
The game has suffered its ups and downs throughout history and in some ways holds up a mirror to some of the social conflicts of the centuries. Among the many famous players of this game was Alexander the Great, although it was the Roman legions who spread the sport throughout Europe.
In the Middle Ages it was so popular among the people that in 1391 the authorities in Valencia banned it, as authorities like to do, causing riots.
In the 19th century the Valencian aristocracy adopted the ways of the Castillians and started to turn their back on the sport. During the French revolution the mob had rejected it as being too aristocratic, the aristocracy having banned its practice among the plebs in the 15th century so as to maintain it as a sport exclusively for gentlemen.
In the 20th century the sport suffered from the advent of cars, property speculation and glass windows. Franco, quite naturally had anyone who looked like they were enjoying themselves shot on the spot, although he did find the game’s walled courts quite efficient for executions of many of his many enemies.
Throughout history, anywhere men have been able to hit a ball, they have done so. The traditional Valencian game is played in a street, and those neighbours who don’t like it have had to shutter up or have their windows broken.
‘The street’ for Valencians is more than a place to park your car or a cleverly designed straight line to help you find your way to a bar. The street in Valencia is a way of life. The barrier between street and home doesn’t really exist in the British sense. An Englishman’s home may be his castle, but a Spaniard’s street is his moat. (I don’t really know what that means, but I don’t think anyone noticed).
Unlike squash or other Spanish variations like Jai Alai, Valencian pelota isn’t played against a wall. Players stand at opposite ends of the street and hit a small, hard leather ball (although other materials may be used) at each other.
There is no net, only a rope tied across the street. No doubt when the game is over, the neighbours would use it to hang out the washing if it wasn’t a bit low.
Although it isn’t a crowd participation sport, spectators do in fact sit under the net, a curious phenomenon which probably wouldn’t go down too well at Wimbledon. Neither would the steps at the side of the court, which the ball can bounce down quite merrily before a player gets round to returning it.
Paco Cabanes’s childhood street was one of those that was used by pelota players, or “pelotari” as they prefer to be called, and so it was logical when growing up that the game should fascinate him, taking place as it did, quite literally, right on his doorstep.
The name of his village, Genovés, near the old fortified town of Xativa, gave him his nickname. El Genovés knew from a very early age what he wanted to do; he wanted to play pelota, like his father before him, but as a living, not as a past-time. Such an idea was frowned upon at the time and so he had to use subterfuge in his early years to register in the regional competitions.
His first serious championship was in Benissa, where he and his elder brother worked in the construction industry, and where in 1971, at the age of 16, having left school at the age of 14, he participated in his first serious championship.
He was soon spotted by talent scouts and began his rise to fame as the greatest exponent of his chosen sport, turning professional in 1973.
In the 70s and 80s he made his reputation all over the Valencian community, spending a lot of time in Benidorm, where he still remembers the foreign visitors who took an interest in his sport and even tried their hands at it. Despite his lack of languages, he found as many people have that in sport, non-verbal communication is possible.
One word that is frequently heard in his vocabulary is “respect”. He gives the impression that neither his sport nor his person have always been treated with the respect they deserve.
He had mentioned an interest in politics, but politics with a small p. Like many respected people, he has been the victim of politicians on the look out for well-known names to pad out their candidate lists and attract a few extra votes. He does however speak well of one politician, Vicente Pérez Devesa, Mayor of Benidorm, a man in whom he recognises a genuine passion for the sport.
These days players can develop their talents in more modern surroundings, and play in specially designed courts called Trinquetes. In Valencia Polytechnic University, the Trinquete is named after El Genovés, and it is there that you will find him two evenings a week, training and passing on his knowledge to new generations of players; lending a hand to new generations so to speak; and among them the one of his two sons, El Genoves II who has followed in his footsteps (or should I say hand-steps? Or hand-prints?)
The sculptured hand in the reception area of the Trinquete was modelled on his own, and there is no truth in the rumour that they couldn’t afford the stone to sculpt the rest of him, nor that he wouldn’t keep still long enough for them to do so.