If you watch Spanish football you will be aware Villarreal is a team that, over recent years, has proudly sat in the top echelons of La Liga. But if you scratch beneath the surface, you will see there is much more to this club than meets the eye. A quite fascinating story of a club from the province of Castellon, Valencia. A club that deserves their place in football folklore.
63 kilometres north of their Valencian neighbours, Valencia CF, lies Vila-real, a historically unremarkable town of just 50,000 inhabitants. It is worth noting that Villarreal’s home stadium El Madrigal has a capacity of 25,000, fitting half the town’s population within these four stands.
Despite a population of 50,000, it is crucial in understanding the achievement of the club, that Vila-real was, and it could still be argued, is just a large village. Unlike many towns, Vila-real has grown mainly within its original boundaries, rather than developing an urban sprawl. Even today, the majority of their fans live within walking distance of El Madrigal. Families tend to stay and grow within the community, making matchdays a family event. This is now Spain’s largest small town club.
Originally more famous for their oranges than football, it was in the latter part of the 20th century when Villarreal’s fortunes began to change. The town would go on to announce themselves on the Spanish industrial map, becoming an important centre within the ceramic industry and so, unseen and without comment, the first seeds of Villarreal’s magical future were planted.
Founded on 10th March 1923 under the name Club Deportivo Villarreal, the club originally played its football at the lower levels within Spain’s regional amateur leagues. One of the first decisions the club’s committee made was to allow women to attend games for free. A radical move in such a male orientated sport.
It wasn’t until September, six months after they were formed, that they played their first official friendly game against Amazonas – a club based in Valencia. Regional friendlies would be the highest standard of football available to Villarreal until 1931, when they joined the Regional League Second Division.
1935 would be the year that Villarreal secured their first taste of silverware – a year before the outbreak of the Civil War – securing promotion to the Regional League First Division. This, however, was as good as it was going to get for quite some years.
War always has so many victims, from death and injury to the disruption of day to day life. CD Villarreal did not survive the turmoil of the Civil War. Villarreal took a couple of different forms from the start of the Civil War to the mid 1940’s. Under the name of Villarreal ED (Educacion Descanso) which translates as Education and Rest, the team bobbed around in the lowest divisions of the regional leagues. The club was to disband in 1946.
For a short period of time the community was to be without a football club. Luckily, like the root of so many good ideas, the foundations were to be laid for the reformation of Villarreal, following a discussion in a bar. Later in 1946, the wheels were put in motion for the rebirth of the club, under the guise of CAF Villarreal. It would be eight years later in 1954, when the board agreed to change their name to as we know it today, Villarreal CF.
It was not until 1970 when Villarreal, or El Submarino Amarillo (The Yellow Submarine) as they are affectionately known because of their bright yellow home colours, reached Spain’s Segunda División. This would mark a significant and proud achievement for the club. Unfortunately, they were unable to consolidate in the Segunda and would last just two seasons in Spain’s second tier, returning once again into the relative obscurity of regional football.
The club lived in the shadow of the Valencian giant Valencia CF, suffocated by their success and also struggling in the wake of Levante UD (the city of Valencia’s second team). After relegation, times were tough for El Submarino Amarillo and the difficult times continued into the 1980’s. But as the saying goes, ‘good things come to those who wait’.
Villarreal continued their stint in the lower reaches of the Spanish game until the fortunes of the club took a dramatic upward turn. This came in the form of a takeover in 1997 by businessman Fernando Roig, who took over the club when they were attracting crowds of less than 3,000.
Roig made his millions in the ceramic industry, as well as having interests in the supermarket chain Mercadona. This new owner would take the supporters of El Submarino Amarillo on a footballing adventure of wonder and excitement.
Roig took Villarreal from the Segunda División to La Liga in the 1998/99 season. Although the stay was brief – lasting just one season – this was just the start of an extraordinary voyage. The club’s supporters had finally tasted the big time and now they wanted more.
Promotion back to Spain’s top flight was achieved at the first time of asking, returning for the 2000/01 campaign. Consolidating as a competitive and financially stable top flight club was the main aim, and probably the most the club’s supporters could have wished for.
This is exactly what they got, finishing 7th, 15th, 15th and 8th in their first four seasons back in La Liga. Under the guidance of Victor Munoz, Benito Floro and towards the end of the fourth season Francisco Garcia Gomez, more commonly known as ‘Paquito’, who took charge after Floro’s resignation.
The foundations were laid during this four year period. In this time Roig implemented a shrewd transfer policy. Misfits from other clubs were to join and a productive scouting network was set up in South America. Pepe Reina arrived from Barcelona, Jose Mari from AC Milan, as would Fabricio Coloccini on a season long loan in 2003 and Juan Riquelme, the jewel in the crown, initially on loan from Barca, along with the veteran Sonny Anderson.
Martin Palermo would arrive from Boca Juniors and Juliano Belletti from Sao Paulo. Also, club legend Marcos Senna came across the Atlantic from Brazilian club Associacao Desportiva Sao Caetano.
The 2002/03 season would see El Submarino Amarillo qualify for the 2003/04 UEFA Cup for the first time in their history, via their victory in the now disbanded Intertoto Cup. This was as a result of Roig’s business guile, acumen and persuasive arguments that allowed him to manoeuvre his club into a position where they could compete in the Intertoto Cup despite their 15th place domestic league finish.
This European campaign would give their supporters a taste of what was to come. Eventually losing 1-0 on aggregate to Valencia at the semi-final stage, which would include knocking out Italian giants Roma on the way. A very creditable return for these European novices. This was just the start, as a certain man from Santiago, Chile was about to elevate this club to even greater stature within European football’s elite.
Manuel Pellegrini arrived in time for the 2004/2005 season, on the back of a stellar career in South American football, but was still relatively unknown within the European game. The Chilean carried on the already proven transfer policy; with Diego Forlan arriving from Manchester United after a less than successful spell in England, as well as Argentine internationals Sebastian Battaglia and Juan Pablo Sorin.
Pellegrini’s first season in charge would see Villarreal qualify for the Champions League with a third place finish in La Liga – then the club’s highest ever league finish. When asked about his style of play his answer was as follows: “My teams always treat the ball as the priority, with plenty of mobility, blending South American football with European. My philosophy is based on having players with a good technical ability. Efficient and creative. My teams think more about building than destroying”.
It was the style of play making people sit up and take notice and not just their impressive results, as many of the new signings were beginning to flourish. Not many people were sad to see Forlan leave Manchester United, but under Pellegrini he was turned into one of Spain’s most potent strikers. Ending his first season in Spain as the joint top scorer with Samuel Eto’o on 25 goals.
The following season saw the club achieve, arguably, their biggest accomplishment to date. For decades Villarreal had been languishing in the lower reaches of Spanish football. But this season they were inviting Europe’s finest to El Madrigal. Manchester United were seen off in the group stage of the Champions League, Rangers and Inter Milan were shown the door in the round of last 16 and the quarter finals. Then they met Arsenal at the semi-final stage.
After a tight first leg in which Arsenal triumphed 1-0, Villarreal welcomed their English counterparts into their intimate setting. The Yellow Submarine was about to be taught how cruel top level European football can be. Chance after chance was to be missed and a complete domination of territory wasn’t enough to break down the Gunners.
However, in the last minute of normal time Villarreal were awarded a penalty. This was their chance to take the tie to extra time, and the way they were playing there could only be one winner. But back to reality. Riquelme vs Jens Lehmann. Lehmann dived to his left and kept out Riquelme’s weak spot kick. A sense of bewilderment shook the El Madrigal. No one could believe what they had just witnessed. Arsenal were going to their first Champions League final. Villarreal couldn’t comprehend how they were not.
The next three years under Pellegrini’s tutelage, before he headed to the Spanish capital, would be filled with more highs than lows. More talents would continue to come through Villarreal’s revolving front door. Giuseppe Rossi arrived from Manchester United for just €10 million. Future World Cup winners Carlos Marchena and Joan Capdevila arrived from Valencia and Deportivo la Coruna respectively and arguably the best defender in world football today, Diego Godin was given his first opportunity in European football by The Yellow Submarine, arriving from Uruguayan outfit, Nacional.
A Champions League quarter final appearance – again losing out to Arsenal in 2009 – and a second place finish in La Liga in 2008 – Villarreal’s highest league finish to date. The town with 50,000 inhabitants had only finished behind Real Madrid, coming a mammoth 10 points ahead of Barcelona.
It didn’t matter which manager was at the helm, whether Manuel Pellegrini, Ernesto Valverde or Juan Carlos Garrido, you knew what you were going to get from Villarreal, – a technically gifted and mobile side which placed skill as the highest currency. This being said the club’s fairytale story was about to come crashing down.
The 2011/12 season would be a car crash of a season for Villarreal. Having lost their key player Santi Cazorla in the summer transfer window to the then oil rich Malaga, it was this transfer that set the tone for the year ahead. An embarrassing defeat in the Copa del Rey to Third Division Deportivo Mirandes and a winless Champions League campaign resulted in Garrido losing his job, despite a 4th place finish and a Europa League semi-final appearance the season before. Villarreal’s decline was confirmed.
Just nine wins out of 38 league games saw the end to the Yellow Submarine’s stay in La Liga. The relegation could be tracked back to the slump in the ceramics industry, as part of the worldwide financial recession, which the club is so reliant upon and further compounded by the unfair split of the Spanish television rights money. But there was another contributor to this decline which was much closer to home – for once their transfer policy had failed and players were not adequately replaced.
Thankfully, Villarreal returned to the top flight at the first time of asking and have firmly established themselves back among Spain’s footballing elite. Finishing sixth in their first two full seasons back in La Liga and with this season coming to its conclusion, they have already secured Spain’s fourth and final Champions League spot. Only the big three lay ahead of Villarreal, the best of the rest you could say.
Fernando Roig knew that the club couldn’t just get by on a shrewd transfer strategy. This is why he built a base to show that Villarreal are here to stay. The businessman provided the finances for the opening of a state of the art 70,000 square meter training complex. Which is used by the first, reserve and youth teams. Fernando Roig is now investing €10 million per year on youth development. With one of the most potent academies in Spanish football, there won’t be much for the Villarreal supporters to worry about regarding their club’s long term future.
It wasn’t just the football side of matters that Riog has been taking care of. Amid the financial crisis facing Spain in 2009, Roig offered free season tickets to local unemployed fans. “The idea is to think about the many members of our society who have had the misfortune of finding themselves without a job and to enable them to continue coming to watch football at the Madrigal”. Is how he went onto justify this innovative concept. I’m not too sure that this idea will catch on in the Premier League anytime soon.
The rise of this club is one of the most underrated and overlooked within European football. A town of just 50,000 with a love for the game has risen from the invisibility of regional football to taking on and beating some of Europe’s footballing giants. Villarreal are at present engaged in a Europa League semi-final against five time European champions, Liverpool, with the return game at Anfield firmly in the balance.
Whatever the outcome of this encounter, one thing is certain, Fernando Roig will still be plotting more fantasy football adventures for the lucky fans of the Yellow Submarine. Underestimate them at your peril.