Thursday, April 06, 2006

Villarreal - Wigan of the Mediterranean

Actually, the above headline, meant to convey the obscurity of the town and the parallels with the Lancashire club's similar rags to riches tale, is a little misleading. Wigan, in comparison with the small town of 47,000-odd people just north of Valencia whose team have just qualified for the Champions League semi-finals, is a veritable metropolis of 81,203 souls. Although, in defence of the Latics, Vila-real does not possess a competing rugby league club of any note....

The magnitude of Villarreal's achievement is underlined by a perusal of the club's history. Like Wigan Athletic, who spent much of their history bouncing between various regional and non-League divisions before election to the Football League in 1977, their past is an inconsequential one. From their foundation in 1923 - their first board included a chemist, a bank official and a postal worker - until their promotion to the country's second tier in 1992/93, save for a brief two season period in the Segunda Division from 1970-72, they inhabited the lower reaches of Spanish football.

Accession to the second division seemed achievement above their station enough for the Sub-Mari (the club's nickname is the 'Yellow Submarines', in reference to the colour of their jerseys), their attendances averaging around 3,500 and their finances impecunious. However, just as Dave Whelan's sports-goods millions were diverted toward the aim of propelling Wigan Athletic into the Premiership, so too, in 1997, did local ceramics millionaire Fernando Roig Alfonso bestow his largesse upon Villarreal.

Despite Roig's wealth and ambition for the club, the trajectory upon which Villarreal then embarked - which reached its apex so far with the elimination of mighty Inter Milan in Tuesday nights Champions League quarter-final - was still as stunning as it was unlikely. Promotion to the Primera Liga was achieved in 1998. Although they were relegated that season, they returned to the top-flight in 2000 and have remained there ever since. They won the Intertoto Cup in 2003 and 2004, and also reached the UEFA Cup semi-finals in the latter season.

Their recent success has been built around a resolutely South American core. Of the fourteen players involved on Tuesday night, eight were of South American origin, as is coach Manuel Pellegrini, who hails from Chile. Argentinians Juan Roman Riquelme - whose sublime skills were deemed surplus to requirements at Barcelona - Diego Forlan, Juan Pablo Sorin, and goalscorer Rodolfo Arruabarrena have been key to Villarreal's progress, their policy of purchasing low-cost foreigners instead of over-priced natives mirroring that other Lancastrian success story, Bolton Wanderers under Sam Allardyce.

And so Villarreal will take the field at Highbury in a fortnight's time understandable underdogs, comparative minnows in terms of history, achievement and riches: when Arsenal were winning their three League titles in a row under Herbert Chapman, Villarreal were celebrating winning the 1st Regional category Championship. But the club from the tiny Spanish town's stellar progression appears to be taking little of notice of football's traditional power-structure, and, suddenly, no-one is writing them off.


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