Villarreal host Barcelona on Sunday looking to continue both their excellent recent results and a club tradition of successfully punching well above their weight.
Javier Calleja’s men have been one of the most in-form teams since LaLiga resumed from its COVID-19 induced break, with big wins over the likes of Valencia moving them up the table and into contention to make the Champions League again next season.
The model club from the 50,000-population city of Villarreal, 60 kilometers north of Valencia in the coastal province of Castellon, has been able to adapt well to the new conditions LaLiga teams are playing under. This should not really be a surprise, given how they have thrived under the long-term vision of the current owner and President Fernando Roig.
Established in 1923, Villarreal spent six decades in Spain’s semi-professional regional divisions, working their way up slowly and reaching LaLiga Santander for the first time in 1998. Clever decision making on and off the pitch saw them quickly establish themselves as serious players in the top flight.
By 2002 they were playing European competition and two years later the club reached the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup. In 2005/06 they beat Everton, Manchester United, and Juventus on the way to the Champions League semi-finals, only to lose out to Arsenal on penalties in the final four in agonising fashion.
With Chilean Manuel Pellegrini as a coach, fellow South Americans Juan Roman Riquelme, Diego Forlan (LaLiga’s top scorer in 2004-05), and Juan Pablo Sorin shone in some really well-organized teams. Other players to make a big impact through the years included Spain’s Euro 2008-winning midfielder Marcos Senna and US international team strikers Jozy Altidore and Giuseppe Rossi, as the club generally worked the transfer market very successfully, and had a highest-ever LaLiga Santander finish of second in 2007-08.
The team’s ‘Yellow Submarine’ nickname dates from the 1960s when fans adapted the lyrics of the Beatles song into a chant of support for the team. Club mascot ‘Groguet’ literally represents the nickname, right up to the periscope coming out of its head. It has not all been plain sailing for the team, however, and they were relegated in 2011-12. They resurfaced just one season later and again reached the Europa League semi-finals in 2015-16, when Marcelino Garcia Toral was the coach.
Villarreal’s most loved current player is Santi Cazorla, a European Championship winner with Spain in 2008 and 2012 and Arsenal legend. Cazorla returned to his first club last summer having recovered from very serious knee injuries, and has provided a phenomenal eight goals and eight assists in LaLiga already while using his experience and smile to influence exciting young teammates such as Samuel Chukwueze, Pau Torres and Xavi Quintilla.
The team’s stadium was renamed from El Madrigal to Estadio de La Ceramica in January 2017, after an impressive remodeling to the 25,000 seater ground, in recognition of an important local industry. Their success on and off the pitch has proved a model for other small clubs to have arrived at the top level in recent years, including Eibar, Leganes, and Getafe.
Barça’s visit last season saw a 4-4 draw in one of the most exciting games in recent LaLiga history. Another good result for Villarreal on Sunday would be a big step towards a return to the Champions League next season. And further reward for all the great work that has been done on and off the pitch through recent decades at the club.
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