Wednesday 22 January 2020

Villarreal rise again on the spirit of an owner like no other

Villarreal players warm up during a training session. Photo: Getty
Villarreal players warm up during a training session. Photo: Getty

Jonathan Liew

The town of Vila-Real lies just off the A7 motorway from Valencia to Barcelona, and there are really only two reasons you would ever visit.

The first is if you want to buy some tiles. Vila-Real is the home of the Spanish ceramics trade, and Spanish billionaire Fernando Roig made his fortune in a local tile business. The other, and the reason Liverpool fans will flood the town in their thousands tonight, is to watch football.

Their presence will not go unnoticed. El Madrigal, the club's atmospheric stadium, holds around 25,000 - half the town's population. When Anfield's 59,000-seat redevelopment is finished, every single man, woman and child in Vila-Real will be able to fit into it. Not that many would be minded to make the trip: there is no great away-day culture in Spain, and when Villarreal (the town's Castilian name) played Manchester City in the Champions League in 2011, they took a total of 17 fans to the Etihad with them.

The point is that a place as small as Vila-Real should not be producing a club the size of Villarreal, and the fact that it has is one of the enduring miracles of football. It is the second smallest town ever to produce a Champions League semi-finalist (after Monaco).

The secret? "Hard work and humility," says Marcos Senna, the Spain midfielder who played there for a decade and is now a club ambassador.

The good times began to roll when Roig bought the club in 1997 with a simple philosophy: "Play good football, invest in youngsters and owe nothing to anyone."

He ploughed his own millions into the club, first winning promotion to La Liga, then peppering it with star names: Martin Palermo, Juan Roman Riquelme, Diego Forlan. In 2006, Manuel Pellegrini's brilliant team came within a penalty-kick of taking Arsenal to extra-time in the Champions League semi-final. Riquelme missed.

Watching in the stands that night was youth team player Bruno, now their captain. And Bruno is one of the examples of Villarreal's investment in young talent, which has also meant Pepe Reina and Santi Cazorla passing through their doors. "The club is an example," he says. "In terms of the investment in the youth system, the facilities, the academy. The president does things the proper way, always has done."

Though the club were careful only to spend what they could generate, the post-recession downturn in the construction industry hit the tiles market hard. Villarreal were increasingly unable to compete and, in 2012, after selling a clutch of good players, they were relegated.

Roig sold his stake in a supermarket chain to keep the club going, and after winning promotion the next season, the club bounced back with remarkable speed. After finishing sixth last season, they are now fourth in La Liga and on the verge of a Champions League return.

Yet for all the good intentions and great memories, something is missing. Villarreal have never won a major trophy. Senna says: "This is a big chance to reach a final. The president deserves it."

The spirit of Roig, who wept on the pitch when Villarreal were relegated, pervades everything the club do. How many times do you hear Premier League footballers saying, "Let's do it for the owner"?

But the tile magnate is no ordinary owner. And the project he started, two long and misty decades ago, is no ordinary club.

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