When Gerónimo Rulli saved a David de Gea penalty in the 2021 Europa League Final shoot-out, he etched perhaps the greatest underdog story in Spanish football history into the record books, putting his side into the pantheon of great European upsets. Villarreal had won a trophy they, quite frankly, had no right to win.
But why is that? Villarreal feel so at home in Europe; a familiar face in the latter stages of competitions following three UEFA Cup/Europa League semi-final appearances prior to last year, adding to their fairytale run to the 2006 Champions League semis.
Whether it was because of Unai Emery, or Raúl Albiol, or just the thought of historic Spanish dominance – I don’t know. But for European onlookers, Villarreal lifting that trophy felt almost natural – even though it was nothing anyone had ever seen before.
Formed back in 1923, Villarreal spent their formative years in the regional leagues prior to the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. Dissolvency and name changes followed before they eventually settled into their current guise in 1954 – but even then they had a long way to go to catch up to the top of Spanish football.
As Real Madrid lifted their first European Cup in 1956, the Yellow Submarine were also partying. But as Alfredo Di Stefano and the boys toasted a dramatic 4-3 victory in the inaugural final of Europe’s most esteemed competition, Villarreal were sealing promotion from the fourth tier of Spanish football for the first time in their history.
By the time they briefly reached the second division in 1970, Madrid had lifted a further five European Cups and reached two other Finals, while Barcelona played in the showpiece match in 1961 – the same year which saw their Spanish counterparts reacquainted with the fourth tier of the country’s footballing pyramid.
It took until 1992 for Villarreal to make it back to the second division, as legendary coach José Sanjuán led his side to back-to-back promotions – just over a month after Barcelona were crowned as European Champions with a 1-0 win over Sampdoria.
By then, the likes of Athletic Club, Atlético Madrid and Espanyol had all tasted a European Final in the time it had taken this small club from the country’s east cost to ascend from the 5th division up to the second – but their gentle hike up the Spanish leagues was about to become a rocket-fueled, all-expenses-paid adventure.
In 1997, Villarreal were purchased by Fernando Roig – a Spanish billionaire and ceramics tycoon who arrived with lofty ambitions to turn the club from a plucky neighbourhood side, into a La Liga stalwart.
Roig’s family had owned Valencia, but Roig had little say in the matters of the club and wanted to create a rival – willing to plow his own finances into it to make it happen, but this isn’t a story of how loudly money talks.
All told, Roig has invested around €200m into Villarreal, but they have only splashed north of £20m on two players – a figure West Ham have surpassed nine times, Leicester seven, and Fulham and Brighton three. Roig has been just as invested in the training ground, the stadium and – most notably – the youth setup.
He promised La Liga football within two years and achieved it in one, sending his local side to the big leagues for the first time in their then-modest 75-year history.
While relegation soon followed, the club bounced back in 2000 and set a course for the top of Spanish football, with plenty of detours into the depths of the major European competitions.
By 2003/04, they had enjoyed three solid La Liga seasons, but now they were ready to leave their mark as they finished 8th alongside a memorable UEFA Cup run which truly put Villarreal on the maps of Spain and Europe – but also into the rear-view mirror of their most fierce rivals.
The Derbi de la Comunitat (Derby of the community) is one of Europe’s oldest rivalries, but one which – for a long time – maintained a friendly edge.
Villarreal and Valencia had always played in different divisions (given Los Ches’ proud La Liga history and Villarreal’s not so glamorous past), but as their neighbours crept up the football stratosphere, games all of a sudden became more familiar and a true rivalry was born.
As The Yellow Submarine sailed on the sun all the way to the 2004 UEFA Cup semi-final, Valencia also went great guns in europe – blitzing past the likes of Beşiktaş and Bordeaux to reach the final four.
A tense 0-0 draw at El Madrigal set up a winner takes all second leg at the Mestalla in front of 58,000 people – over twice as many as the first leg. The tie was decided by a controversial penalty which Miguel Martínez slotted home to send Valencia to the final, and deny their rivals the opportunity to appear in their first.
But while Villarreal didn’t earn a chance to play for silverware, they had certainly earned the respect of their near neighbours, for whom the message was clear: they were no longer the little brothers, but a bonafide threat to Valencian, Spanish and European football.
That summer, Manuel Pellegrini took over at the helm and finished 3rd in La Liga, while making a UEFA Cup quarter-final – tasting defeat over two legs to Dutch side AZ. But their podium finish in La Liga ensured Champions League football was headed to the town of 50,000 for the very first time – just nine years after a 15th place finish in Segunda.
One of the main contributors behind that was Diego Forlán, as the Uruguayan goal machine hammered home 25 league goals following a torrid two-and-a-half year spell at Manchester United.
When the Spanish side took him off the Old Trafford books, they asked United to come down for a friendly which they promptly refused. “Don’t worry”, Roig said, “they’ll come – and for free.” Words that meant as much then, as they do now.
They subsequently drew United in their Champions League group the following season, ensuring Sir Alex Ferguson’s men belatedly travelled to El Madrigal on matchday one of the campaign, finishing in a well contested 0-0 draw.
Pellegrini’s side scored just three goals during the group stage, but a staunch defensive effort meant they only conceded once as they topped the group unbeaten ahead of Benfica and Lille, while United finished 4th.
They swatted aside Rangers in the next round, with goals from Juan Román Riquelme (another impressive South American import Pellegrini had to count on), Forlá and Rodolfo seeing off the Scottish side, before the latter pair combined again to dump Inter Milan out in the next round.
Their latest European galavant took them to Highbury to face a star-studded Arsenal side which contained the likes of Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp and Robert Pires. As ever, Villarreal kept it tight and took a one goal deficit back to Spain where they gave it a real go – but ultimately it wasn’t enough.
As Riquelme saw a penalty saved by the unbeatable Jens Lehamann (who failed to concede a goal for the entirety of the tournament), Villarreal’s chances drifted away as they were once again narrowly defeated at the penultimate hurdle.
Two more progressive seasons took the club into 2007/08 – the most impressive domestic campaign in the club’s history.
Still led by Pellegrini, they lost to Zenit St. Petersburg in Europe (meaning they were eliminated by the eventual finalists for the third time in four campaigns), but finished an unprecedented second in La Liga as the club’s brand of attacking, attractive football began to really catch the eye.
They amassed a club record 77 points in La Liga – ten ahead of Barcelona, and just eight behind champions Real Madrid – their most admirable of onlookers. So impressed with the job the then-55-year-old had done (as Villarreal reached another UCL quarter-final), Florentino Pérez brought the Chilean in on a two-year contract in 2009.
In response to losing the then-greatest coach in the club’s history, Villarreal underwent a transition – led by Roig and his vice president José Manuel Llaneza, who had already made a huge imprint on the club following his scouting of South American players.
They decided that the club would now focus more than ever on their youth, eventually leading to ‘B’ Team manager Juan Carlos Garrido being appointed in 2010, following a disappointing spell under Ernesto Valverde.
These decisions initially bore fruit, with another 7th place finish in 2009/10 earning them a Europa League play-off match where they hammered Belarusian outfit Dnepr Mogilev 7-1 on aggregate, before finishing top of their group and breezing into a seventh knockout stage in just eight years.
Armed with the likes of Santi Cazorola, Giuseppe Rossi and Nilmar they brushed past Napoli, Bayer Leverkusen and FC Twente to contest yet another semi-final.
But Porto and Radamel Falcao would prove too hard an obstacle, as El Tigre hammered home five goals over the two legs in a 7-4 aggregate win – and it wasn’t the last they’d see of the Colombian.
They picked themselves up from another near miss and finished third to ensure a third Champions League campaign was headed home, but 2011/12 wasn’t the fairytale it was supposed to be.
The sale of the aforementioned Cazorla to Málaga, married with an unprecedented injury crisis and nose dive in form during the back end of the campaign resulted in the unthinkable: relegation to Segunda.
While they hadn’t looked in much trouble for the majority of the season, a run of just three wins from their final 16 games plunged them into a dog fight at the wrong end of the table.
They travelled to Mestalla on the penultimate matchday of the season needing just a point from their fiercest rivals, but Villarreal’s rise had almost come at the expense of the once-great Valencia, and they weren’t about to let their neighbours off the hook.
Another tense Mestalla game – much like the 2004 UEFA Cup semi-final – also finished 1-0, as Jonas scored a 91st-minute winner to ensure Villarreal would need a result on the final day against Atlético Madrid.
But once more they came up short, as Falcao broke local hearts with an 88th minute header, before an even later Raúl Tamudo goal gave Rayo Vallecano the lead against Granada to drag Villarreal into the bottom three.
As Marco Ruben flicked a header agonisingly beyond the far post, the club’s fate was sealed. Games in Europe at the Allianz and the Etihad ended in relegation come May. Roig broke down in tears as the players fell to their knees – Villarreal were down, but crucially, not out.
The club lost Nilmar, Rossi, Borja Valero and Diego López amongst others during the season, but Roig and Llaneza didn’t panic and trusted the process of even more focus on the youth, as well as redevelopments to the playing infrastructure.
Marcelino was appointed in the January and led the club to promotion just a year after tumbling out of the top flight, and they haven’t looked back since.
He made local talents the cornerstone of his side, with the likes of Bruno Soriano, Jaume Costa, Manu Trigueros and Mario Gaspar taking the club to back-to-back 6th place finishes, before they once again beat Bayer Leverkusen and Napoli on their way to yet another semi-final in 2016.
They took on Liverpool, as El Madrigal welcomed another esteemed foreign giant onto their soil for the stadium’s fourth major European semi-final.
That may seem like child’s play to some clubs, but between 2004 and 2016, only six sides played in more – namely Barcelona, Chelsea, Bayern, Liverpool, Sevilla and Real Madrid. Hardly bad company for anyone to keep, nevermind a side whose net spend in that period was just £11m.
A late Adrián López goal gave Villarreal a narrow lead to take to the home of The Beatles, but the second most famous Yellow Submarine in the city was powerless to stop Jürgen Klopp’s side as they fell to a 3-0 defeat and suffered semi-final heartache once more, with further disappointment to come.
Despite a hugely successful three-and-a-half years in charge, Marcelino was sacked following disagreements with the board, a matter of days before the new season began.
Fran Escribá took charge the very next day, overseeing defeat in the Champions League play-offs but an overall successful first season in charge as he led the club to fifth, before he also faced the chop in September 2018.
Javier Calleja (a former Villarreal B gaffer and senior team player) to the reins, taking over a squad which had gone through serious turnover in the summer – but one which welcomed Santi Cazorla back for a third spell following seven seasons away, defying the naysayers to light up La Liga.
Not everyone was quite on the same wavelength, though. Just three wins from the opening 15 games was the worst start Villarreal had made to a La Liga campaign since the dreaded 11-12 season, and Roig was not up for a repeat – sacking Calleja in December, before inexplicably rehiring the Spaniard in January 2019 after Luis Garciá presided over eight domestic games without a win.
They eventually finished 14th as Calleja earned another season in the hot seat, presiding over another off-season of change as Villarreal said goodbye to the likes of Pablo Fornals, Alfonso Pedraza and Víctor Ruiz, while Karl Toko Ekambi (last season’s top scorer) departed in January.
But the emergence of Gerard Moreno, the dazzling form of Cazorla, and a strong end to the season (coupled with late Real Sociedad and Getafe collapses following the Covid-19 break) ensured Villarreal would once again finish 5th and qualify for the Europa League.
It wasn’t enough for Calleja, though, as the Spaniard was dismissed for a second time to set in motion another whirlwind off-season, with Cazorla departing again after two magical years, while club icon Bruno Soriano hung up his boots following injury – a total of 753 Villarreal games walking out the door. But Roig’s latest inspired move would finally deliver what the Yellow Submarine had craved for so long.
Unai Emery became the 11th manager to take over at the newly renamed Estadio de la Cerámica in the previous ten years, but he would prove to be by far the best.
While his stock was low following ultimately disappointing stints at PSG and Arsenal, he has always been a hit in La Liga – making history at Almería, Valencia and Sevilla, while his European pedigree was there for all to see.
Emery and Roig rebuilt with a clear strategy: reinvigorate players’ careers, pick up bargain buys of underrated performers and trust in youth/local players.
In through the door came Valencia pair Dani Parejo and Francis Coquelin for £8.3m, Pervis Estupiñán for £14m after impressing on loan at Osasuna the season prior, Juan Foyth on loan and Étienne Capoue joined from Watford in January for just £1.8m.
In typical Emery fashion they topped their European group, finishing unbeaten against Qarabağ, Sivasspor and Maccabi Tel Aviv, before swatting aside RB Salzburg in the first knockout round 4-1 on aggregate.
From there they faced Dynamo Kiev, taking a 2-0 advantage back home to Spain after the first leg, and as his side repeated the feat in the second with a brace from Gerard Moreno, Emery broke the record for the most games managed in the history of the UEFA Cup/Europa League with 99 – surpassing Giovanni Trappatoni’s 12-year record.
In his seventh quarter-final and the club’s eighth in Europe, Villarreal took on Dinamo Zagreb – the reigning Croatian champions who had defeated Spurs in the previous round, topped their group unbeaten and lost just two of their previous 22 home matches.
But again they left unscathed, winning 1-0 and keeping a seventh European clean sheet from nine games, before advancing with a 2-1 win back home.
They were there once more: the dreaded semi-final stage, where an old foe for both club and manager lay in wait. Arsenal had defeated them at this stage of the Champions League in 2005, before dumping them out of the quarter-finals four years later, but this was different; Villarreal had a European crackerjack.
They took the lead early in the first leg, with all the pieces of Emery’s puzzle playing their part. Dani Parejo – an exceptionally gifted midfielder discarded by Valencia in the summer – spread the play to Tottenham reject Juan Foyth, who in turn found talented academy youngster Samuel Chukwueze to set up Mr. Villarreal himself, Manu Trigueros – who fired into the net.
Raúl Albiol doubled the lead soon after, and while Nicolas Pépé pulled one back, Emery was returning to The Emirates as the winner and Villarreal were once more just 90 minutes away from a final – a chance they wouldn’t miss.
A 0-0 draw sealed the deal for the Spaniards who, after years of heartbreak, were finally headed for a final, where they would take on none other than Manchester United – the club who declined a friendly all those years earlier. They were now the only thing in between Villarreal and a first-ever trophy.
Armed with a side which cost just £36.2m compared to United’s £324m team, which included Eric Bailly – a player who cost the English side just two million pounds less than the entire Villarreal starting XI.
Gerard Moreno gave the underdogs the lead before Edinson Cavani equalised – but a long-haired, South-American bagsman wasn’t going to spoil this party.
A tense penalty shootout followed, as the footballing Gods rang every last drop of tension out of the proverbial dishcloth that was Villarreal. It went down to the goalkeepers, because, well, it had to. These fans had ‘suffered’ for 17 years – another couple of penalties wouldn’t make a difference.
Gerónimo Rulli lashed his home, before saving a tame David de Gea spot-kick to deliver the unthinkable: Villarreal were a European Champion – the smallest town to ever have that honour.
They did it with ten academy graduates in the squad (including five penalty scorers), and even five players who played with the club in Segunda all those years ago. It was a beautiful story, and its latest chapter is even more poetic.
Juan Foyth joined permanently in the summer, while Arnaut Danjuma joined from Bournemouth to become the club’s record arrival and just the second player in their history to cost more than £20m (where he has, naturally, been one of the best value for money signings in Europe).
They were once again paired with Manchester United in the group stage, and while they fell to defeat in both games, three further wins and a draw propelled the Yellow Submarine into the knockout stage once more – but no further would they advance.
Or so many of us thought. Juventus stood in the way in the last 16, while by no means the dominant, Champions League challenging side of yesteryear, surely still a squad too much for little old Villarreal? Absolutely not.
A 1-1 draw in Spain set up a tense second leg where goals from Moreno and Torres made the game safe, before Danjuma scored a third to end the contest, a year to the day after he did exactly the same thing for Bournemouth against Swansea in the second tier of English football.
Then came another quarter-final, this time against Bayern Munich – one of their 2011-12 foes from that woeful campaign which saw them dumped out of La Liga and winless at the bottom of their UCL group; but this time was different.
It took just eight minutes for Danjuma to strike again, leaving his side more than 80 minutes to hold on but that’s Emery’s bread and butter. They took an unlikely 1-0 lead to a different Allianz this time and seven blocked shots, 52 clearances and two counter-attacks later – they were back in the semi-finals of the UEFA Champions League.
An absolutely mammoth effort. The club which had no right to be there, had no right to win and no right to progress, was doing just that. Robert Lewandowski has scored more goals in his last 80 games than Villarreal’s all-time top scorer has, while his club have won more trophies in the past year than their opponents have in their entire history.
But Villarreal will progress to the semis, where another former foe stands between them and a historic, incomprehensible, inconceivable shot at glory. No matter what the result is, this club has made more history than, for a long time, was ever thought possible.
While this miracle shows no sign of stopping, there will come a day when Villarreal are no longer associated with Fernando Roig – but he will never be forgotten. In the town where he was born, lived a man who sailed to sea. He will tell you of his life – one where he lived a dream – all aboard his yellow submarine.
By: James Pendleton / @Jpends_
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / NurPhoto / Quality Sport Images – Getty Images