Home for lost souls
The great thing about football is its capacity to renew itself. I mean that if the supporters of the biggest and best had their ways, theirs would be a permanent fiesta, an annual sliding open of the trophy cabinet to pop another cup onto the groaning shelves. Success breeds a further desire for success, a formula which is frequently fulfilled.
The majority of Europe's top clubs have been around for over a century now, and although some of them have become minnows, and some of them have even disappeared, many of the big boys are still staking their claims.
The semi-finalists in this year's Champions League rather prove the point. Milan, founded 1899, Barcelona the same year, Arsenal 1886 and erm...Villarreal, 1923. Well - that's only 37 years after their English opponents for the semis, but there are some differences.
Since the top flight existed in England, Arsenal have barely been out of it and current have a record of longevity far greater than any other side. But with regard to Spain's top division, Villarreal have hardly ever been in it. Seven times, to be precise, in a less-than-glorious history.
The fact that the 'Yellow Submarine', as they are mysteriously called (they really do need a new nickname) have come this far is great news for a Spanish league that has been suffering in image terms this year: racist incidents, dire refereeing, and a rather less competitive league than has been the case in recent years, with Barça walking away with the title.
Valencia and Real Madrid, powerful sides in Europe in the past decade, lie second and third, but their challenge has been more of a whimper than a bang. Osasuna, impressive though they have been all season, have in fact needed to do nothing beyond being well organised to maintain a Champions League place.
Villarreal's achievement this year is the most startling in Europe since little Alavés made the UEFA final back in 2000. But this is the Champions League. Villarreal have already put out Everton, Rangers, Manchester United and Inter, just in case anyone thought they'd had an easy passage. Arsenal seem to have recovered something of their old form and will start as favourites, but what a wonderful possibility - that the Spanish side might make it to the final.
Arsenal, of course, for all their tradition and history, have never made it to the ultimate club final either, so at least one record is to be broken. And of course, if Barça negotiate their tricky way around Milan, it will be the second all-Spanish final since Real Madrid and Valencia - which also took place in Paris, curiously enough. The omens are good. It would certainly put a smile back on the face of La Liga, although for some it would also represent a papering over of the cracks.
No matter. The fact that a side so heavily humble as Villarreal can get this far is what keeps football alive. Monopolies are one thing, but the essence of sport (and life) is that some day they can be broken. It might take centuries, but just as long as there's hope, there's interest. The facts accompanying this side from the Costa de Azahar, north of Valencia but stuck in no-man's land between the tourist coastal zones of the Costa Brava and the Costa Dorada - go something like this.
The town (although in truth it's a suburb of Castellón) boasts 47,000 inhabitants, which makes it the second smallest population centre to make the semis, after Monaco (32,000). But there's rather more money floating around the latter place, obviously.
Of the Spanish sides who have already been at this stage, there are no surprises. Real Madrid (21 times), Barcelona (8), Atlético Madrid (3), Valencia (2), Deportivo (2) and Real Sociedad (1). Of that list, although Deportivo hail from a much larger population centre than Villarreal, they also spent much of the 20th century in relative obscurity. Maybe this century will be different. That would keep things ticking over very nicely.
Villarreal have got this far by specialising in resuscitating players previously neglected by other clubs. El Madrigal has become a sort of detox clinic, a place for traumatised footballers to take some time out and recover their confidence, their will to live. Like dogs mistreated by their previous owners, several players have responded most positively to being loved.
Riquelme and Forlan are the most obvious examples. In four seasons at Old Trafford Forlan managed 10 league goals, but as soon as he arrived at the Madridgal , he knocked in 25. There were two reasons for this. One was that manager Manuel Pelligrini rated him - and told him so - and the other was Juan Román Riquelme. When he turned up at the Camp Nou in 2002 from Boca Juniors, he came adorned with rave reviews. He played 30 games that season for Barça, but something wasn't right. Loaned out to Villarreal, he's never looked back. In fact he's probably the best midfielder in the world - which makes it a funny old story. No-one had actually noticed him outside of Spain and Argentina until this season, but they must be kicking themselves now.
There are those who still maintain that his poor performances at Barça (well - not poor, just ordinary) raise a question mark over his real ability - the implication being that he couldn't hack it at the top. But Ronaldinho did very little at PSG, and look at him now. The Brazilian's lack of a relationship with coach Luis Fernandez has been well-documented, and is a similar story. Once bedded in a place that wanted him, with a manager that understood him, and bingo! Ronaldinho seems all fun and light-heartedeness now, but it was not always the case. Rijkaard takes a lot of credit for changing that.
Riquelme is a complex, moody character, not one to be the life and soul of the squad. He wasn't really a Barça person. At the Camp Nou, they have to know that you understand the cause, and that you're prepared to articulate that commitment, if necessary. Riquelme didn't play along, and was shunted off. The other problem is obvious - that he needs to run the show. No way could he function with a whole host of other creative players around him, which is why he was never invited back. Xavi was allowed to emerge and take control, and the rest has been history. Now they've added Ronaldinho, Deco and Messi, and can afford to leave the other truly great player in the Spanish league over at Villarreal - a team that Barça still find it hard to take seriously.
And for all the usual speculation that goes on regarding who Real Madrid are going to sign next, Riqueleme has only warranted one brief mention in the pages of Marca, some months ago. Again, the feeling is that there are too many egos still at the Bernabéu. To hand the reins to Riquelme just might not work. The risk is too great.
Ah - but to watch him is to see the art of midfield play at its supreme and subtle best. Unlike Ronaldinho, there are no fireworks with Riquelme. In fact you don't really notice him half the time. Defenders don't either. He floats around the area between the holding player and the forwards, and represents an absolute nightmare to the opposing defence. Slow and ponderous looking at times, if you try to tackle him he just ghosts past. If you try to mark him he simply drops off so deep that the man-marker gets bored. And he never loses the ball. It seems to be uncannily stuck to his boot. Then when a forward makes a run into space he always finds them. His passing is deadly accurate, and often visionary. Everything goes through him. He almost always causes something to happen.
Against Inter, he drove the opposing midfielders batty by simply having them permanently on the back foot. It's defence through attack. If you're the opposing manager, you know you're going to have to deal with him. He's a problem you have to consider. Arsène Wenger is no doubt doing that right now.
And so over in the suburbs of Castellón, in a stadium that holds a mere 23,000 spectators, Riqueleme and Forlan will attempt to topple Arsenal and book their plane tickets to Paris. The rest of the team is just a willing supporting cast, but with some other interesting 're-inserted' characters.
Jose Mari was the great Spanish hope when at Seville and Atlético, all flowing locks and male-model chin-line. But when Milan came shopping, he went the way of all Spanish flesh there, and disappeared as a footballer. On returning he spent a year at the Atlético madhouse once again, before moving over to Villarreal, where he's played very well since. Not well enough to get back into the Spanish squad, but he's doing ok. The basic idea is to give the ball to Riquelme, but when he can't do that, he copes quite well down the right, as a nuisance factor.
Sorin too, has been something of a nomad, never quite settling down, despite looking a half-decent player. Neither Lazio, PSG nor Barça could seem to decide on him, but in Villarreal he's found a happier home.
Hope for Villarreal, hope for all. Nothing against Arsenal, but I hope the Spaniards do it.