When the history of La Liga is written, Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid are expected to enjoy the lion’s share of it.
But among them, Villarreal CF takes its own place.
Not only has the club stayed in European competitions regularly in the last decade but it has done so with very little financial resources.
In 2021, the club from a town with a population less than the capacity of Manchester United’s stadium, Old Trafford, beat the Red Devils to win the Europa League – its first-ever major European title.
A team that had returned to La Liga just eight years ago made headlines throughout Spain and the ‘Yellow Submarine’, its nickname, became a case study of how to win so much with so little.
The club got its nickname from the 1970s song by The Beatles, the ‘yellow submarine’ a song played during its celebration for being promoted to the fourth tier. In March, Villarreal completed 100 years.
“I think Villarreal is a family – a team with very good ideas and methodology,” said Marcos Senna, former Villarreal captain and club legend.
“It’s a very small city – 50,000 inhabitants. I cannot remember a city with so few inhabitants who have had a team in the top division for so many years, winning important titles such as the Europa League.”
A team of makeshifts
Villarreal has historically seen its team comprised of players who have fallen out of favour in their previous clubs. This, however, doesn’t necessarily indicate that it is a team of poor players.
Misfits in big teams, such as Barcelona, Manchester United and Arsenal, found a confidence chamber to prove themselves – a platform to shine again. The prized second chance.
Be it Diego Forlan, Juan Román Riquelme or a World Cup and two-time Premier League Champion, Robert Pires.
The colour of the club, too, came through makeshift means. In 1947, the son of the club’s president was sent to the neighbouring town, Valencia, to buy replacements for white shirts, Villarreal’s then kit-colour.
However, white shirts were out of stock and the only colour available was yellow. And that has become its colour since.
In terms of players, the club’s most successful season in the last decade was in the 2003-04 season with Forlan, Riquelme and former Arsenal invincible Robert Pires playing for the Yellow Submarine.
In 2006, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger decided to go for younger players and Pires, 32, saw himself out on a free transfer. He missed out on the World Cup squad as well falling out with the France coach Raymond Domenech.
Riquelme suffered the same fate after Louis Van Gaal arrived at Barcelona, while Diego Forlan after having a row with Sir Alex Ferguson over boots at Manchester United joined the La Liga side.
And just like that, Manuel Pellegrini had a side of top-quality players with whom the team reached the semifinals of the UEFA Champions League, with wins over Roberto Mancini’s Inter Milan and Ferguson’s Manchester United.
Sixteen years later, the team emulated the feat – reaching the semifinals. This time the teams on the losing side were bigger teams, namely Bayern Munich and Juventus.
The heroes for Villarreal were Arnaut Danjuma, a former Bournemouth player, who had suffered relegation from the Premier League in his first season and Pervis Estupian – an Ecuadorian who struggled for game time at Watford.
“After all the work that I have seen at the club for so many years, I can say that we do not have the same budget as Real Madrid, Barcelona or Atletico Madrid. But it is a club where the feeling of belonging among players is a very important thing,” said Pepe Reina.
Reina joined the club in his early years and has won several laurels across Europe, including three Premier League Golden Gloves and a Champions League silver medal with Liverpool.
The Villarreal academy – the assembly line for the Yellow Submarine
Villarreal’s biggest strength has been its academy – one that has created its own narrative against the hegemony of Spanish giants such as Real Madrid which have opted to inject more money.
In 2021, over a period of five years, the Yellow Submarine had a net profit of 14.96 million euros on its spending while Manchester United, its opponent in the Europa League final, was at a loss of 609.16 million euros.
Reina, Cazorla, Rodri and now Pau Torres are some of the prime examples of a tried and tested assembly line that continues to nurture young talents, such as Samuel Chukwueze and Alex Baena.
“The most important asset of the club is the academy players. It is very fortunate to have another team in the second division - (Villarreal B) because I believe these young lads will grow up to be excellent football players, which is required for a La Liga player,” Reina told reporters.
Reina was the most expensive departure from the club when he signed for Liverpool in 2005 for about 10 million euros.
The cub has continued to enjoy significant profits by producing talented youngsters, with Cazorla joining Malaga for 19 million euros and Atletico Madrid signing Rodri for 25 million euros.
“This is something that needs to be defended because it is fundamental for the second team to maintain its position in the second division so that its productivity and production become the foundation of the first team,” Reina added.
The way ahead for Villarreal
Villarreal had to succumb to financial might in October 2022 when Aston Villa signed Unai Emery – its Europa League-winning manager – after paying his release clause of six million euros.
This, in turn, paved way for another ‘outcast’ to embrace the club – Quique Setien, the former Real Betis manager who had failed most spectacularly at Barcelona with his final game being an 8-2 loss to Bayern Munich.
And so far, Villarreal has won 12, drawn four and lost nine matches under the Spaniard and sits sixth in the La Liga table, with 38 points from 25 matches.
“(His football) is a style that is focused on keeping the ball and on being aggressive too when you have to pressurize the other team and above all, the team has to score one goal more than the opponent. So we have to maintain that style,” Reina quipped.
Though it looks unlikely that it will match its highest-ever finish (2nd) this season, a top-four finish still looks possible with fourth-placed Real Sociedad seven points ahead.
“At the financial level, it is very important to play in the Champions League and if we can win titles like the Copa del Rey, the Conference League or even the Champions League, that would be marvellous,” Senna added.
Unlike Real Madrid, Barcelona or Atletico, the club does not aggressively chase silverware all the time, nor does it earn headlines for making expensive transfers. Instead, the club is content staying in the top division and, at times, chasing the sun for titles.
And so far, it has stood up to its name – celebrating small victories and making sure the submarine does not sink, despite staying in water – for a century now. Just like John Lennon and Ringo Starr put it: “As we live a life of ease, every one of us has all we need, Sky of blue and sea of green, In our yellow submarine”