It was April 25th 2006. It was 15 years ago. The events of that night remain clear in my mind. It was the night that we were just two minutes and 12 yards away from defeating a legendary Arsenal side and reaching the final of the Champions League. That was the difference between success and an uncomfortable hangover that lasts for life.
Fortunately, football has afforded Villarreal CF the possibility of reaching a new European final. Or, better put, Villarreal CF have earned this opportunity.
This is the result of a well-established and sustainable project. That’s the only way to understand how a club from a city of just 50,000 residents has reached its fifth European semi-final of the past 16 seasons. In contrast to teams from big cities like Rome, Manchester, London, Paris or Madrid, the entire population of the city of Vila-Real would fit inside Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, and there would still be 10,000 seats left over!
The club’s budget of 117 million euros is smaller than those of all the other ‘superclub’ European semi-finalists. It’s David surrounded by Goliaths.
I remember when I arrived in Vila-Real for the first time in 2002, having come from the giant urban setting of São Paulo. At the time, the club had only been in Spain’s top division for three seasons, making what we achieved during the 11 years I was there all the more incredible. For context, the first time Villarreal CF won promotion to LaLiga Santander level was in 1998 and Gianluigi Buffon was already an international player with Italy. It wasn’t that long ago, but the club has evolved so much that it’s as if 100 years have passed.
Fernando Roig, the club’s president, was a visionary and always had things clear in his mind. That’s how Villarreal CF have become an example of intelligent, responsible and honest management in football. All of the club’s players, including the youth team players, have been surrounded by the best possible professionals to assist with their development. For example, there are pioneering programmes in nutrition and psychology. The financial limitations have been countered with a firm backing of the academy, as seen through the club’s two sporting centres and the residency that was recently opened. They also make up ground through excellent recruitment work. Over the years, quality international players have worn the club’s shirt, such as Forlán, Riquelme, Cazorla, Pires, Reina, Bruno Soriano, Capdevila, Godín, Marchena, Rossi, Soldado and Rodri. Then, looking at the current squad, they have Pau Torres, Chukwueze, Bacca, Gerard Moreno, Albiol, Alcácer, Parejo… All of this is part of a project and footballing ethos that doesn’t falter. Even when the club went down to LaLiga SmartBank in 2012, they bounced straight back up. That’s why there is so much satisfaction with the current achievements. It has been built one training session at a time over the past few years. This is a model club that you can be proud of.
Even though top players like Cazorla, Bruno Soriano or Ekambi departed last year, Villarreal CF are still fighting to reach the Europa League final. They haven’t lost a single match so far in this season’s tournament. At the same time, they’re still battling in LaLiga Santander in the competitive race for fifth place. There’s a need to recognise the efforts of Unai Emery, a winning coach, and of the entire squad. I’m sure that this semi-final tie will be very special for all of them. Against Arsenal, they have an invaluable opportunity to break through the wall and reach a European final for the first time. I think our time has come. It’s time to fight for a title and, I hope, to win one.
In Spain, there is talk of this being a semi-final of revenge because the opposition is Arsenal, the team of 15 years ago. However, this tie actually goes beyond that. It’s an example of how, with good management, the ‘European dream’ is achievable for any modest club that knows how to embrace the beauty and richness of the football we all know and love, even if the club isn’t one of the continent’s most historic or powerful. And remember, David did defeat Goliath…
Marcos Senna was a Villarreal CF player between 2002 and 2013 and won Euro 2008 with Spain. Now he works as director of institutional relations at Villarreal CF, a role he has held since 2016, and he is also a LaLiga Ambassador