Villarreal's Champions League run no fluke: After eliminating Juventus and Bayern Munich are Liverpool next?
When the Beatles released the Ringo Starr-sung "Yellow Submarine" in August 1966, Liverpool were reigning champions of England, had won the FA Cup a year previously, and already had a social phenomenon in the seething, swaying, chanting Kop. One week previously, the Reds' star players, Ian Callaghan and Roger Hunt, had just won the World Cup with England.
On the day when the Beatles' publicity machine for their Yellow Submarine/Eleanor Rigby release went into overdrive, Villarreal were in Spanish football's fifth tier. Located in a tiny agricultural and fishing town close to the Mediterranean Sea, the club's uncovered Madrigal "stadium," with capacity for a couple of thousand, wasn't much more than a pitch with walls around it.
Fernando Roig, the Yellow Submarine's visionary President who in a few days will celebrate 25 years in charge, had just turned 19 and Unai Emery, the man who'll take them to Anfield this week wasn't even born. (He arrived in 1971).
They wouldn't have been considered a David to Liverpool's Goliath -- more like the guy who lived three doors down from David and collected sharp stones for him to earn a couple of bucks a month.
But that maddeningly catchy song from the "Revolver" album, which went to No. 1 across the world (apart from in Spain, where it reached No. 3), was immediately adopted by the fans and local media.
There's a presumption that because the club have only become world-known over the last sixteen or so years the nickname is a modern creation. Not so. Villarreal were on a promotion mission that, by 1967, would see them wriggle their way back into the third division, and there's a lovely faded black-and-white photo of a fan banner held up by first-team players on the day which reads: "The Yellow Submarine is Advancing At Full Steam."
And here they are. Los Groguets ("the Yellows") about to return, as Ringo would put it, "To the town where (their nickname) was born."
Whatever the result, it's a journey of magnificence -- one that backs up the answer Fernando Roig gave me recently when I asked him for just one phrase to sum up his quarter-century reign that's seen a tiny, lowly, practically village-team become one of Europe's greatest and most admirable clubs.
"Hard work and dreaming big," was Roig's answer.
When Villarreal knocked Juventus out of the Champions League last month, precisely the type of phobic experience which had led La Vecchia Signora and other greedy clubs around Europe to launch their ill-planned, unloved and short-lived European Super League project, Roig went to Juve President, Andrea Agnelli, and told him that their idea of a "closed-shop" European League, in which clubs like Villarreal weren't to have an automatic right to play, was... garbage.
His message was underlined by his team winning 3-0 in Turin -- Davids around the world yelled with glee at seeing another Goliath not only beaten, but thrashed and, hopefully, taught a lesson in humility.
It's Villarreal the club, though, that is the "everyman" up against a behemoth here -- not Roig himself.
Like his brother and sister-in-law, he is a billionaire. Roig's success in ceramics and as part of the family Mercadona supermarket chain has meant that he could purchase Villarreal for just over €400,000 in 1997, fund some of their expansion, cope with relegation, invest in innumerable local jobs and integrate his then 24-year-old son, Fernando Jr., into the club's boardroom, in which he's now effectively the lead figure.
Relegation, from which the club bounced back with rubber-ball speed, was the most painful experience for him across this magical quarter-century. But 2006, the last time the Yellow Submarine reached the Champions League semifinal, was the more brutally iconic image. Arsenal beat them 1-0 in London and, at 0-0 at the Madrigal, with mere moments remaining, Juan Román Riquelme failed to convert the penalty that would have taken the game to extra time and a potential trip to the final in Paris.
Which, of course, is where this year's showpiece will now be held. Don't ask a man who only believes in hard work and big dreams whether destiny is calling.
But ask him about that night of broken hearts 16 years ago and he'll say: "I remember it well. I fell out of my seat -- down on my knees. I almost fell over altogether. Reaching that semifinal was an incredible success at that time."
"I felt sad because we didn't achieve our objective, but I always tell Juan Román that only those who dare take penalties miss them. I couldn't miss it, because I didn't take it. Nowadays, Villarreal is much bigger than back then."
Of course Roig's most iconic success came a year ago, again against Premier League and European behemoths. Although Manchester United lost in the Europa League in Gdansk, many forget that this remarkable 74-year-old had only just recovered from the coronavirus in time to take his private jet from Spain's eastern coast to Poland's most famous Baltic port. He was told on arrival that his negative test hadn't been produced early enough to allow him access to the stadium where his team were on the verge of history. So, hours before kick-off, he turned tail on the spot and made it back to Villarreal and sat alone in his living room, watching Geronimo Rulli win the Yellow Submarine one of the most remarkable penalty shoot-outs ever and watch his boys, his club, lift a European trophy.
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He recalls: 'My sofa was draped with Villarreal flags placed there by my wife so I could be surrounded by our colours. I experienced the final by myself because my kids were in Poland, my brother was in Poland; everyone was in Poland. I watched more or less alone because my wife finds it very tense. She gets stressed more because of her son than me! But she does suffer. I didn't cry. I was very tense. I did cheer.
"When the match was over, I was yelling, I came out onto the balcony of my house and I was there for two or three minutes, releasing all the nerves, shouting and shouting."
Imagine, as another member of the Beatles might have said, all that work and all those dreams, but absent from the coronation.
The key man to whom Roig Sr. owes the dream come true is Unai Emery.
Emery, a Basque-born footballer of workmanlike ability, is a good witness to what his boss has achieved. He played a handful of matches for Toledo against the old Villarreal, both pre- and post-Roig's purchase, always in the second division, in an ultra-modest stadium, when the team still trained in a public park or school playing fields.
Win, lose, draw -- Emery immediately sensed that there was urgency, ambition and grit about the Yellow Submarine project. Now, after a distinguished career that he still seems to think might take him back to Premier League management in the near future, he's been the one to coach Villarreal to a first significant trophy in their history.
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Appointed by Roig Jr. rather than the club's president, these have been two absolutely remarkable seasons with him at the helm. To eliminate Arsenal in the semifinal last season, beat United as widely-held underdogs, remain undefeated throughout that entire Europa League campaign and absolutely wage toe-to-toe war on European Champions Chelsea in Belfast at the start of this season in the UEFA Super Cup, before flirting with a Newcastle link and nearly departing, would be enough for most people. Yet he's the one, in the Yellow Submarine's words, ensuring that 'everyone of us, has all we need' for a Champions League semifinal against the six-time competition winners.
Whoever is fit (hopefully Francis Coquelin for this week and Gerard Moreno for next), whatever the tactics, however vital it is for Emery to avoid his last two results at Anfield (losing 5-1 and then 3-1 in charge of Arsenal), you must be sure that his players won't have any dearth of information or analysis.
As Emery told UEFA recently: "There is always a lot of analysis of our opponents, so that my players know their opponent as much as possible. So that we all know how we can be better. In general, if we have an opponent with a bigger budget, better players, more trophies, more success, we, in our best version, competing with our best performance, can beat them."
Janusz Michallik praises Liverpool's manager, Jurgen Klopp, after their 2-0 win over city rivals Everton.
"So I always try to give the players more work rather than less, give them more information rather than less, tell them more things rather than less. Then we have optimistic expectations but based on a lot of work."
"You can't be an optimist without a strong foundation of something: meaning work, dedication, knowing ourselves, knowing our opponents. That's where optimistic, but realistic, confidence comes from."
No doubt that these are the very elements Emery used last time he met Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool in Europe -- the 2016 Europa League final win in Switzerland which was one-way Liverpool traffic for 45 minutes and then a Seville steamroller for the remainder of the match. Viewing, planning, convincing, believing -- winning.
Just like Roig Sr., just like Villarreal these last 25 beautiful years -- working hard, dreaming big. And now, back in the town where their nickname was born.