Faith in values keeps Villarreal afloat

Villarreal owner Fernando Roig in 2003, shaking hands with Sebastian Battaglia. (Photo: Jose Jordan/Getty Images)


For a dream draw, this one nearly turned into a nightmare. Three-nil may look a comfortable winning score but make no mistake: Villarreal was sweating three-quarters through its tie with Odense.

The Spanish side still trailed by a goal from the first leg at half-time in the return, and that it all turned out alright in the end was a testament to the club’s good, old-fashioned values, sticking to the plan that got it where it is today.

Fernando Roig bought the club in 1997, when Villarreal was starting just its seventh season in the relative heights of the Segunda Division since its foundation in 1922. Arguably, it was punching above its weight in the second tier. The town of Vila-real (it was changed back to the Valencian spelling in 2006) has just 50,000 inhabitants, the little brother to neighboring Castellon de la Plana, an unadorned working city on Spain’s east coast, an hour’s drive north from Valencia.

The arrival of Roig saw a club. whose stadium (El Madrigal) had floodlights installed for the first time as recently as 1973, transformed forever. His money created an infrastructure that saw Villarreal promoted to the top flight for the first time (in his first season at the helm), establish itself there and later, under the stewardship of coach Manuel Pellegrini, become a regular in European competition too.

With renovations polishing El Madrigal into an all-seater, 22,000-capacity stadium and the construction of a magnificent new training ground in nearby Miralcamp initiated early on in Roig’s tenure, the provincial ugly duckling was transformed to big-time swan. If the pinnacle was 2006’s agonizing Champions League semi-final exit by Arsenal, virtually the whole Roig era has been a dream. It’s little wonder the Valencia native was named a Hijo Adoptivo de Vila-real (‘adopted son’ of the town) in February 2006 by the local council.

The president hasn’t just thrown cash at the club – Villarreal has been well-run, and the development and subsequent sale of the likes of Pepe Reina, Diego Forlan, Juliano Belletti and Diego Godin bear witness to that. Yet the club will never be a big profit-maket. It sells to survive and struggles against the weight of established soccer tradition. It only sporadically fills its modest stadium, getting an average crowd of 17,000 and worryingly, Roig has taken a beating in the current recession.

He made most of his money in the tile industry – this modest town accounts for 90 percent of Spain’s production in this industry, and it is the connection that brought Roig to it. Yet the decline has hit hard, with business declining at an average rate of 13 percent since 2008 as property construction grinds to a halt.

Villarreal has often been presented as a soccer utopia in Spain, where players can develop in a pressure-free environment where technical merit and tidy passing is prized. Yet this Champions League qualifier was a real pressure situation. Few Spanish clubs can turn up their noses at the financial bounty on offer, and with the gap between the duo of Barcelona and Real Madrid and all the rest yawning wide, it is perhaps more important than ever – especially this season.

Santi Cazorla sale gave Villarreal a need infusion of cash, but it also stocked the squad of a club that will threaten their place in the top four. (Photo: Jose Jordan/Getty Images)

The ambitious expansion plans of Malaga’s Qatari owners are unfolding apace, as Villarreal know only too well. It lost its star midfielder Santi Cazorla – who scored twice for Spain in its dazzling 4-0 win over the US in Foxborough back in June – to the Andalucians last month for a cool €21 million ($30 million). Under the expert guidance of Pellegrini, an impressively talented Malaga squad is threatening to fill the power vacuum beneath the big two, so for the likes of Villarreal, making the most of the Champions League spots, in both an economic and sporting sense, is paramount.

If the money situation should worsen, Villarreal has talent to jettison, including New Jersey-born Giuseppe Rossi and Brazil striker Nilmar, but Roig will need no telling that this a short-term solution. After all, you can only sell a player once. It’s not often that Roig (or anyone) would take financial management tips from Valencia, yet that’s what he has done this time.

The Mestalla club held onto their own dynamic duo of David Villa and Silva in the summer of 2009, knowing they could help the club return to the Champions League – a necessary habit and the repetition of which will make a steady dent in substantial debts in the years to come. With the Cazorla sale as breathing space, the club has held on to Rossi, a target for Juventus and Barcelona’s €35 million ($50 million) back-up in case the Alexis Sanchez deal fell through.

After the lackadaisical manner that let a result slip out in Denmark a week ago, Villarreal needed its big players to stop showboating and make it count. Rossi did just that with typical aplomb, scoring twice in fifteen second-half minutes – the second from a quite sublime Cani pass – to break the resistance of Henrik Clausen’s side.

Having been wholly frustrated by some heroic goalkeeping by Stefan Wessels up to that point, even arch-spoiler Carlos Marchena got in on the act, scoring the clinching third thanks to an uncharacteristic fumble by the Belgian. It was an unusual and perverse way to breathe a sigh of relief, but Villarreal’s gamble had paid off.

Let the party commence.