Next stop on Villarreal's road to recovery: Camp Nou
When Villarreal jog out to face Barcelona at the Camp Nou on Saturday night, Real Madrid and Atletico will be looking at them with a silent prayer that they take points from the Spanish champions.
Sevilla and Valencia, meanwhile, will simply be looking at them with envy.
They, in addition to Villarreal, over the past 12 years and at least until the recent rise to excellence of Atletico, had formed the 'trio of opposition' to the hegemony of Madrid and Barcelona.
Between them, Sevilla, Valencia and Villarreal won 11 trophies, reached two Champions League finals, three Champions League semifinals, three Uefa Cup finals and five Uefa Cup/Europa League semifinals. They took some scalps along the way too.
Real Madrid, Barcelona, Liverpool, Inter Milan, Arsenal, Everton, Marseille, Manchester United (eliminated rather than beaten), Borussia Dortmund, Roma, Tottenham and Porto all fell to these La Liga buccaneers at the hands of Luis Fabiano, Freddie Kanoute, Renato, Antonio Puerta, Dani Alves, Julio Baptista, Juan Roman Riquelme, Diego Forlan, Robert Pires, Giuseppe Rossi, David Villa, David Silva, Roberto Ayala, Vicente, Fernando Morientes, Santi Cazorla, Marcos Senna and Jesus Navas.
Of the three it was Villarreal who merely shone without touching silverware but for all neutrals theirs was the most brilliant story: They had a small stadium, a small budget and a small local community… but massive dreams.
In technical terms, “the Yellow Submarine” stood as a decent microcosm for all that has been both worthwhile and successful about Spanish football, club and international, over the past decade or so.
The club itself supplied three exceptionally important components of La Roja's Euro-World Cup-Euro trophy hat trick: Joan Capdevila, Marcos Senna and Santi Cazorla.
The football which Villarreal played, while still based on possession, pressing and technique, had more in common with the pace and dynamism of the English or German leagues. Without the budget of Real Madrid or Barcelona, work-rate and intelligence were used to eradicate the class-gulf.
Their president and majority shareholder, Fernando Roig, always told us, the media, when we asked that "one day we'll win the Champions League". Even if the dream was out of reach, this was a blue-collar region of Spain where people either had no employment or worked damn hard for a living.
The elegant sports car, suede jacket and fat cigar brigade which remain a significant component in the Madrid-Barcelona populace are a rare, rare breed at the Madrigal Stadium. The dream of European glory meant more here, I swear it did.
On Villarreal's biggest nights, domestic or European, I always believed that this was the kind of atmosphere, with local pride crackling through the air and a fervent belief in the David vs. Goliath fable, which reminded the majority of us where we came from.
Those who grow up being taken by our parents to the local club, which happens to be AC Milan, Manchester United, Real Madrid or Bayern Munich, are in the minority.
We of the Udinese, Portsmouth, Lens, Aberdeen, Hoffenheim, Aalborg, Oviedo, Swansea, Stoke, we are the majority and Villarreal spoke for us. Often it must all have galled Valencia, their near-neighbours and the club which rejected Roig's takeover attempt at the Mestalla in the late 1990s.
His stewardship of “el Submarino Amarillo” took Villarreal from training on public parkland to the semi-final of the Champions League in 2006 and second place behind Real Madrid in the Spanish league two years later.
Valencia lifted trophies, became regarded as part of the European elite, often bought well and occasionally produced admirable talent. But even in the good times they neither had the presidential élan which Roig can most certainly boast, nor the “wow!” factor which accompanied Villarreal's progress when, internationally, one country after another discovered the disproportionate correlation between the size of their community and the scale of their achievements.
Valencia's decline -- last season they finished fifth after three straight third places and have continued to sell of their best players -- was precipitated by a perfect storm in which the club, badly presided over by Juan Soler, consistently bought the wrong player for too much money and then was caught out by the sudden ferocity of the economic crisis and property slump, while trying to juggle an existing stadium with the construction of a new one.
Over the past few days, the major shareholder in the Valencia FC Foundation, Aurelio Martinez, has for the first time outlined the basic price below which he wouldn't sell. The significance is that while Valencia's major debt facility, Bankia, attempts to solicit offers for the club, Martinez has always said that selling wasn't an option.
Now, with the regional government who have been guarantors of that debt -- indeed club saviours -- keen to see the situation moved forward and with Bankia intensely keen to reduce or clear the debt, Valencia's immediate future is under immense scrutiny.
The operational budget, year-on-year, has just been cut by around 20 million Euros and a ball-park price to buy the club -- without clearing the debt -- has been set at 150 million.
While the continuity of “Los Che” is the central issue (i.e. the avoidance of being put into full administration or put out of business), a further fire sale of those playing assets which remain is the policy hurtling towards the desk of President Amadeo Salvo.
A few thousand kilometres south in Sevilla, president Jose Maria del Nido finally quit on Monday, tearfully admitting that he should have done so long ago.
His seven-year jail sentence for financial misappropriation had been under appeal and, thus, he felt mandated to remain in charge of the “Rojiblancos”, sure as he still was of his self-proclaimed status as the “most important man on earth apart from the Pope”.
The sentence (and seven-figure financial sanction) follows a fine imposed on the club for what the anti-competition law judged to be an illegal-length contract which was agreed with the TV football rights buyer, Mediapro.
It's an undignified end to a reign in which, during nearly a dozen years, Del Nido and his touchstone football director, Ramon “Monchi” Rodriguez, consistently constructed audacious, profitable teams.
A huge “summer sales” in the last transfer window brought in 90 million Euros gross (58m net) and dragged Sevilla away from the financial abyss but, given that they can't realistically dream of Champions League football any time soon, they'll have to consider whether it's realistic to hold on to their key assets -- Alberto Moreno, Ivan Rakitic and Carlos Bacca -- over the next two transfer windows.
Villarreal's perfect storm was composed of the club realising that their dream of fairer television revenue distribution within Spain wasn't coming any time soon, which led to them embarking on wage structure reductions and losing the exceptional coach, Manuel Pellegrini all within a short space of time.
The policy changed, whereby large wages were offered to star signings who were looking for a stage to relaunch themselves. Instead, emphasis was put on drawing talent from the club's well-resourced, highly-regarded youth system. However, of course, that is usually not an instant recipe for robust success. No Pellegrini, plus talent sold and no stars bought to replace them, led to decline.
It was not instant but incremental and when relegated, in the summer 2012, it was clear that Villarreal remained a Primera club and a Primera squad in all but their ability to jut forward an iron jaw instead of a glass one when certain things --injuries, refereeing decisions, loss of form -- went against them.
What continues the feeling that this is a likeable, laudable club, and what will make all neutrals wish them well on their return to the Camp Nou this weekend, is that Roig immediately cleared the club's debts.
He sold some of his own stocks and shares -- his wealth is from supermarkets and ceramics -- so that Villarreal would be debt free to creditors, players and the taxman, in particular.
While Villarreal struggled, and then righted themselves, the local area was being hit brutally by recession. Unemployment in some sectors will top 30 percent, and finding the money for either a season ticket or to attend a given match can change from being desirable to impossible.
Thus it is that you can often go watch a Primera match at the Madrigal for 20 euros. Not bad! Roig reckons that you CAN run a club purely like a business -- but he doesn't want to.
“One can but one must also be clear about the difference between the two things," he argues.
"I don’t manage the club. I’m the boss of my commercial companies but I only preside over the club. As do our directors.
"The most important thing in this job is managing the relationships so that everybody is giving of their best. In football it’s all about feelings.
"We get 18,000 people turning up to our games and there are 30,000 more supporters out there. Those 48,000 fans make this club and I could never consider myself as somehow 'in charge' of all those people.
“I was in a [Spanish football] federation meeting a while back and someone was complaining about the fans giving him a hard time.
"I told him that our supporters were still right behind me even when we were relegated. The difference being that he tries to run the club as an investment whereas I put money into this club.
“We keep our fans coming back because we show that we care, we’re affordable and we provide quality entertainment. You have to offer quality at a good price.
“We believe in the Mercadona [his supermarket chain] philosophy: a good product at a good price. Keeping our stadium full is a priority."
Marcelino, the Villarreal coach, has been given a new contract and influential midfielder, Cani, has just signed on for another three and a half years.
The Submarine has taken points off both Madrid clubs already this season. Meanwhile, Villarreal 'B' are beginning to be an influential supplier of talent for a first team which are currently fifth, one point outside the Champions League spots.
Roig, too, is a voice for common sense and moderate reform. When the Primera presidents get together and negotiate, he is someone who has longevity, commercial nous and a firm determination to alter the iniquitous imbalance in TV revenue distribution.
His voice is heard and he senses that there is movement, that gradually Barcelona and Real Madrid may understand that their own health -- footballing, if not financial -- could be improved if they update the distribution system.
"The argument is that we want a key part of the financial distribution to be governed by performance in the league, not current might or global support" Roig confirms.
So, regardless of whether Real Madrid or Atletico carry your hopes and dreams, the fair-minded and the progressive will wish Villarreal well, not only at the Camp Nou on Saturday but for their continued impact on Spanish football generally.