On 13th May 2012, 88 minutes into the final game of the Primera Liga season Villarreal were holding Atletico Madrid to a goalless draw, a result that would have secured their survival and a 13th consecutive campaign in Spain’s top flight. However just as it looked like one of La Liga’s most colourful chapters was about to be extended Radamel Falcao leapt to power a header past Diego López and break the hearts of almost everyone inside El Madrigal.
The Villarreal fairy tale was over or so it seemed.
That summer they were forced to sell almost their entire team and the common consensus in Spain was that although it had been fun while it lasted, the miraculous adventures of little Villarreal were something that would be consigned to the history books. It was an extraordinary tale but common sense suggested that a relegated and greatly depleted team from a town of just 50,000 people wouldn’t be able to bounce back and mix it with the Spanish and European football giants again.
To properly understand the magnitude of their success, you have to take a few steps back.
As recently as 1998 almost nobody outside of Spain and many within it had even heard of Villarreal, the football club or the place. They were a small team from a small town that had fluctuated between the Second and Fifth tiers of Spanish football. There are dozens of small town sides of that ilk in the country and there was seemingly nothing remarkable about this one.
The previous year the club had equalled the best league campaign in their long but undistinguished history. They finished 10th in the Segunda Division. A mid-table Second tier finish isn’t the sort of thing that gets you noticed however even within the Valencian Community which had long been dominated by Valencia CF and the mention of ‘Villarreal’ brought about little more than mild ambivalence at the Mestalla.
Why should they care? The two sides had never played in the same division and Villarreal was just a little town 60km down the road from where they drew a small section of their fanbase. ‘Vila-real’ as it is known in Valencian, is only the 15th largest city in the region and doesn’t even make the top 100 nationally. The football club’s presence in the Segunda Division alone was enough to draw suggestions that they were punching above their weight and at the time few could have made a strong argument against that notion.
Fast forward six years and that same small seemingly insignificant club were playing neighbours Valencia in the Semi-Finals of the UEFA Cup. Two years later they beat Italian giants Inter Milan to reach the Champions League Semi-Finals and in 2007-08 they finished nine places and 26 points ahead of their local rivals, ten points above Barcelona and were second only to Real Madrid in La Liga.
The speed and scale of their rise was nothing short of extraordinary. In less than a decade the club had gone from ‘nobodies’ to become one of European football’s household names. By 2011-12 Vila-real was well and truly on the map thanks to a football team that had come to be affectionately known as ‘the Yellow Submarine’ thanks to their iconic yellow shirts and the fact that they had taken a liking to sinking some of Europe’s biggest ships.
The secret of their remarkable success during this period is hard to pinpoint. Managers came and went almost as quickly as players but there were two standout regimes that were crucial to Villarreal’s rise from local mediocrity to the brink of conquering Europe.
The first was that of Víctor Muñoz. He replaced Paquito, a matter of weeks after the experienced manager had secured Villarreal’s promotion to the Primera Liga in 2000. It proved a logic-defyingly successful move as the former Spanish international midfielder achieved an unexpected 7th place finish in his first season as coach and had cemented little Villarreal’s status as a Primera Liga club by the time he left three years later.
What really propelled the club onto the next level though was an influx of South Americans over the following few years. On the playing side of things they took a punt on talented individuals who were either unproven in Europe or had failed to shine at one of the continent’s bigger clubs. The likes of the talismanic Juan Román Riquelme and Diego Forlan shone in a pressure-free small town environment where they were idolised by a growing legion of fans.
Off the pitch the arrival of unheralded Chilean Manuel Pellegrini, who hadn’t previously managed in Europe proved the catalyst for a 3rd placed finish in 2004-05 and that wonderful debut Champions League run the following season. Pellegrini’s reign was by far the longest of any recent manager, lasting five seasons and although the club qualified for Europe’s premier club competition again after he departed for an ill-fated spell in Madrid, under him was when Villarreal were at the peak of their powers.
However just when Spanish football’s elite were beginning to accept that Villarreal were in no mood to surrender their lofty position in the country’s football pecking order they endured a fall that was just as sudden and almost as unexpected as their rise.
After 8 consecutive seasons in the league’s top eight the club endured a torrid 2011-12 campaign in which three managers came and went but failed to reverse the club’s fortunes. The Falcao goal that eventually condemned them to relegation came less than six months after they had been participating in the Champions League. It was the all so sudden end of an era and everyone inside El Madrigal knew it.
There was no way the club could support a talented if misfiring squad on small Segunda Division gates and minimal TV money. The inevitable mass exodus that followed saw players that had helped them beat Europe’s best like Diego Lopez, Marco Ruben, Nilmar and Borja Valero leave the club. In all an incredible 32 players were sold in the summer of 2012 raising €39million of which none was re-invested in transfer fees.
Although one or two experienced players arrived on free transfers the odds on Villarreal making an immediate return to the top flight after such upheaval seemed slim. 30 year old Julio Velázquez who had never played the game professionally was promoted from the B team to lead the club but was largely seen as a cheap option and his reign would only last six months.
He was replaced by Marcelino who suffered a humiliating 5-0 defeat to Real Madrid’s B team in his first game to leave the club languishing back where their adventure had began, in the middle reaches of the Segunda Divison. Crowds were down to below 10,000 and many pundits doubted whether Villarreal would ever return to the Primera Liga.
However fast forward to the end of 2014 and the Yellow Submarine is very much rising again. They are back in La Liga, back in Europe and once again sinking supposedly bigger ships.
The ease and speed with which they coped with mass comings and goings to ultimately rise up the Segunda Division table to secure promotion before instantly settling back into life at the right end of La Liga again defies logic. It has surprised and probably annoyed many of the league’s bigger clubs who thought they’d seen the back of Villarreal.
Sweet revenge was gained on the very club that relegated them in their penultimate league game of 2014 as a late Luciano Vietto goal inflicted on Atletico Madrid their first home defeat in over 18 months. That win was followed by a 3-0 home victory over Deportivo, a result that means Marcelino’s men head into the new year on the back of seven consecutive wins in which they have scored 17 and conceded just once. That run has propelled Villarreal to 5th place in La Liga, just one point off Valencia in the final Champions League spot and right now they are in with a strong chance of returning to Europe’s showpiece tournament next season.
Their return is almost as remarkable as their initial rise to a prominent position in Spain’s football ladder. Although some similarities in their approach remain, it is still a very different story second time around. Gone are the household names, this is very much a new predominantly youthful generation and all the signs are that they are only going to get better.
Of the side that started the final two league games before the short Christmas break, only two players were over 26 years old and none over 30. The current strike partnership of Ikechukwu Uche and Luciano Vietto is proving a handful for defences across the country. 21 year old Vietto wasn’t even prolific in his native Argentina but now has six goals in six games and is in double figures for the season while Uche likewise has blossomed at Villarreal after struggling for goals at other clubs in Spain.
Much like the golden generation under Pellegrini, the midfield includes a couple of re-vitalised players who have been recruited after failing to make the grade at Spain’s top clubs but neither are exactly big names. Mexican Jonathan dos Santos has broken into the team of late after making just three league starts in five years at Camp Nou while on the opposite flank 23 year old Russian Denis Cheryshev has impressed after making little impact at Real Madrid or Sevilla in previous seasons. The central midfield steel is provided by two products of the Villarreal youth academy in 23 year old Trigueros and Bruno, a veteran at 30 and one of the few who stayed on after the club’s relegation to the Segunda Division.
Defensively they are strong with Gabriel Paulista this season linking up with Victor Ruiz to form an effective central pairing and protection for Sergio Asenjo who is starting to fulfill his early promise in goal.
Much of the credit much go to coach Marcelino though. If the initial signs were negative, the 49 year old from Asturias has proved nothing short of a revelation as boss. After sparking a fine end of season run to secure promotion, he guided the side to an outstanding 6th place last term and has subsequently steered the club through the Europa League group-phase on what so far has been a successful return to European football and one that has not been to the detriment of their league form.
Some smart transfer business and the continual ability to get the best out of players who have failed elsewhere remains the hallmark of Villarreal’s success while the riches that several Champions League campaigns brought has been re-invested in an outstanding youth academy which is beginning to really bare fruits.
After everything this club has achieved against the odds it should surprise nobody if they are back dining on Europe’s top table again next term. In the age of billionaires and mega-money transfer deals, football needs stories like this one. It helps retain the magic of the beautiful game and Villarreal’s continued success sends out a powerful message to fans and players alike at low profile clubs around the world.
Their story shows that it is possible for clubs to rise from footballing backwaters to break up the elite. It shows that nothing is set in stone and that teams from mundane towns with no history of being even moderately successful can flourish under the right guidance.
Villarreal were the small town club that dared to dream and their re-emergence shows once more that sometimes even the most unlikely of dreams can come true.
Twitter – markinsevilla