The Villarreal way

The inspiring lesson from the Spanish club's great run in the Champions League is that even in these days of astronomical salaries, massive sponsorship and huge outsourcings of television money, an obscure club can still rise from the depth and succeed.

If ever there was a breath of fresh air, a glimpse of hope for the future, it surely comes from Villarreal, whatever may or may not happen to them in their semifinal of the European Champions League against Arsenal. Villarreal were too good for Manchester United in the group stage, and they eliminated wealthy Inter in the quarterfinal. And yet just 15 years ago, they were a 4th division team playing in front of attendances of a mere 150. Even today, the population of the little industrial city is a mere 48,000; about half whose number fills the small stadium on the great occasion. All this by heartening comparison with Chelsea, whose vast shadow and that of the billionaire Oligarch Roman Abramovich, who owns them, hangs over English and European football alike.

True, Villarreal's astonishing rise has been made possible by another rich man, the ceramics magnate Fernando Roig. But by comparison with the billions of Abramovich, Roig is a man of relatively modest means. "I told everyone who would listen, even then, that I was going to turn this team into a First Division side," says Roig, harking back to the days when he took over the club. "When we finally hit Europe, some people seemed to think our goal should be not to make fools of ourselves. Well, I never wanted just to play in the Champions League. I want to win it."

The star of the show has unquestionably been the dazzling playmaker, Argentina's Juan Roman Riquelme, though even without him Villarreal were too good for a Manchester United team, which may now be having second thoughts about selling Diego Forlan to the Spaniards. Forlan it was who scored his team's vital first goal against Inter at the San Siro. The blond Uruguayan international found it hard to get goals at Old Trafford but personally I always had faith in a player who could score the kind of goal I saw him get for Uruguay in the 2002 World Cup, bringing the ball down well outside the penalty box on the left and lashing it home with a spectacular volley. You might even say that, to a certain extent, Riquelme was damaged goods when he arrived on loan from Barcelona; a loan that was in due course transformed into a permanent transfer. For Riquelme — with his manifold skills, supreme capacity for finding space, shrewdly-struck free kicks and inspired passing — has this season emerged as one of the finest players in Europe and probably anywhere else. Making total nonsense of the low ranking he obtained at the turn of the year in the France Football European Footballer of the Year award.

Playing for his country against England in Geneva last year, Riquelme simply bestrode the pitch. The Spurs defender Ledley King was supposed to man-mark him but he couldn't even find him! Against Inter — a ruthless team at times in the ferocious elbow-flinging shape of Marco Materazzi — he was similarly irrepressible. There was a glorious moment in the first half when he took on one Inter opponent after another, once even spinning round successfully to avoid a tackle, before finally shooting over the bar.

But in the second half, Riquelme would force a spectacular save from Inter's international keeper, Francesco Toldo, and set up the winning goal with a cleverly-worked free kick, curling in the ball to which Toldo responded too late, thus enabling another Argentine, in the shape of the skipper, Rodolfo Martin Arruabarrena, to head the ball home.

Yet another Argentine in Juan Pablo Sorin, many times an international yet unable till now to settle long with any European club — Barcelona, Lazio and Paris Saint German notably — has been expressing his long-haired, left-sided talents with Villarreal. He certainly did not deserve to be viciously and bloodily elbowed in the face by Materazzi, but you might see this as the measure of Inter's sheer frustration.

So, as you can see, there is a strong South American flavour about Villarreal, very much including the resourceful Chilean manager, Manuel Pellegrini, who was once in charge of Buenos Aires' River Plate and has made such profitable use of his knowledge of South American players. Having managed a host of different clubs, big and often small, in South America, he arrived at Villarreal in July 2004. As a solid defender, he played 453 times for Universidad Cattolica but won just a single international cap. But that is hardly relevant in the context of his coaching.

The inspiring lesson is, then, that even in these days of astronomical salaries, massive sponsorship, huge outsourcings of television money, an obscure club can still rise from the depth and succeed. Have we not seen it this season in the shape of Wigan Athletic, not long ago toiling in the lower depths of the Football League but, promoted to the Premiership this season, capable of holding their own with even the biggest and richest opponents?

Here too, a millionaire is to be thanked, in the shape of David Whelan, who never looked back after breaking his leg playing for Blackburn Rovers versus Wolves in the 1960 FA Cup Final at Wembley. Far from repining, he set about becoming an eventual millionaire through his sports goods business. Again, though unquestionably rich, he is minor League by comparison with the truly wealthy. Wigan, so well managed by Paul Jewell, can seldom hope to acquire a major star, an exception being the coruscating Senegal Winger, Henry Camara, bought from Wolves, though there he had hardly set Molineux alight.

Back in the 80s there was the phenomenon of Watford, backed by the millionaire singer Elton John, who came all the way up with their questionable long ball tactics from the 4th division to second place in the first; and a place in the FA Cup Final. It can be done!