European Football

We All Live In the Yellow Submarine

Villarreal CF’s hilariously improbable rise to where they are now…

Today we are going to discuss some human geography.

The town of Villarreal, or Vila-real in local dialect, is a small community located in the province of Castellón and within the autonomous Valencian Community along the eastern coast of Spain. It is a town of about 50,000 people, almost remarkably unremarkable in many ways, and certainly does seem like more of an ancillary sight within the region. It is a town that contains one actual hotel, only one, which often requires travelers or tourists to stay in a nearby community, usually the much larger Valencia, and travel from there. It is a town and area most known for the manufacturing of ceramic tiles, around which the area’s economy seems to revolve. The most remarkable building in the town just might be locality’s football stadium, the 23,500 seater Estadio de la Cerámica.

That stadium hosts a football team, Villarreal Club de Fútbol. A team known for their distinctive yellow kits, Villarreal CF spent the vast majority of their history floating around the lower divisions of Spanish football before finally making their maiden voyage into the top flight in 1998, 75 years after their creation. Since then, they had been relegated down to the second division twice but have mostly stayed in LaLiga, experiencing a few phenomenal seasons but mostly settling in the mid-to-upper-mid-table range. While a notable club, they seemed to still pale in comparison to the stature of nearby clubs, most notably local rivals Valencia CF.

Oh, and they are in the Champions League semifinal. They beat Juventus and Bayern Munich to get there.

Photo courtesy of LaLiga

I am very sorry Villarreal fans, locals of Villarreal, and anyone else. I do not mean to sound dismissive or disrespectful toward your club or your town, but I feel like that is the only way to accurately portray the insanity of what we are witnessing and have already bore witness to. And while there is certainly a one-off “miraculous” element to this, it also feels like this has been building on previous progress. We all know that Villarreal won the Europa League last season, which is worth stressing again that their Europa League triumph is their first major trophy in the club’s nearly 100 year history, but they had also been in and around the European places every season aside from one for the last decade. They had slowly but surely assembled a pretty talented team made up of academy graduates and bargain signings, amassing their resources to the point where they are now likely fielding the most talented team that has ever wore that yellow shirt.

This has all been tied together by their manager. Unai Emery has been the target of some criticism during his time with the Yellow Submarine, and rightly so in my opinion, but this famous night in Munich leaves no doubt as to where Emery’s place in Spanish football history lies. He is the man at the helm of one of football’s greatest overachievers, a team punching well and truly above their weight, the Cinderella story in which the clock still has not struck midnight. He has certainly gotten quite a lot out of these players, able to take this team and put them in the system and situations that leave them in the best scenarios to succeed. He gives them the intrinsic belief that they can slay giants and win trophies. Is he the best manager in the world? Certainly not. Is he the best manager in Spain? Well, probably not either. But, especially after everything he went through at PSG and Arsenal, Unai Emery has finally found a post-Sevilla home and is finally getting some of the praise he has deserved.

But this is all absolutely absurd. Just utterly bonkers, and we as a footballing society are not absorbing just how bonkers this is. The town of Villarreal having a top flight football team at all, let alone an elite level top flight football team, is insane. Villarreal CF being in this position despite only entering LaLiga for the first time in 1998 is insane. Villarreal have failed to win in four of their last five league games since the beginning of March, which includes losses to relegation fighters Cadiz and Levante, and they then turned around and eliminated Juventus and Bayern. Simply insane.

Photo courtesy of LaLiga

Yes, Villarreal have come into some money lately, especially after their European success last season, but it is worth noting that the transfer fees of the entirety of Villarreal’s starting 11 against Bayern added together is only around €15 million more than what Bayern paid just for Lucas Hernández. Only four players in Villarreal’s starting 11 (Arnaut Danjuma, Gerard Moreno, Pervis Estupiñán, Juan Foyth) were signed for more than €10 million, and only two other players on the bench for the game against Bayern were signed for more than that figure (Paco Alcácer, Vicente Iborra).

And not only did they beat Bayern Munich, but they probably could have scored more in the first leg. And you could tell at the end of the game. The Villarreal players had a moment of celebration overwhelmed by a sense of disappointment. Yes, they beat Bayern, but they could have, and probably should have, won by more. And that in itself is an unbelievable testament to the progress that Villarreal have made over the last several years.

It is a very easy team to love, too. They have struck a balance between youth and experience that teams with significantly more resources fail to capture. You have two genuine stars, two of the best in their positions in Spain, in Gerard Moreno and Dani Parejo. You have capable, talented, and hard-working veterans like Etienne Capoue, Raúl Albiol, Manu Trigueros, and Paco Alcácer. You have rising stars like Pau Torres, Juan Foyth, Yéremy Pino, and Samuel Chukwueze. And then you have players in the middle who provide a little bit of youthful talent and veteran experience, like Arnaut Danjuma and Giovani Lo Celso. Villarreal are a team with balance, with a surprising level of depth given their traditional lack of finances, and a team with a serious level of cohesion. Enough cohesion to form one of the biggest underdogs in Champions League history, a team that is two games away from a UCL Final.

This is all simply absurd.

Photo courtesy of LaLiga

The run that Villarreal have been on over the last two seasons might be one of the greatest underdog success stories that football has seen since Leicester’s title run, if not longer. They are a story that warms my heart in a sport that is certainly lacking in good underdog stories. They are possibly the biggest evidence point in arguments about the need for structure and organization in player recruitment and team building, standing as the antithesis to the idea that throwing money at the problem would fix it. They stand as a shining example of the reasons that we love football.

So, Villarreal fans, I wholeheartedly congratulate you on the incredible journey you are taking part in. I wish you the best of luck going forward this season and into next season. I thoroughly hope that the Yellow Submarine get to play for a European Cup at the end of the season. Football fans everywhere, it is time for us to recognize just how wonderful and insane and improbable this story is and give credit to this incredible team.

And I do not know how much further they will go, but one thing is for certain. On the day of the first leg of the Champions League semifinal, Villarreal fans will wake up, put on their now famous yellow shirt, look themselves in the mirror, and say…

“Why not us?”

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