Andy Mitten

Villarreal set for a renaissance

Andy Mitten

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You can walk from one side of Villarreal to the other in 25 minutes. From the tiny, two platform, train station to the sprawling CF Villarreal's cuidad deportivo, fitted around fields growing oranges, on the other. You walk past the town's solitary hotel and by houses clad in ceramics so garish they'd work as a set for Balamory. They're a reminder of the main local industry and the reason why Villarreal benefactor Fernando Roig made his money.

The tallest building in the town of 51,000 is the new stand which is used to house away fans at the El Madrigal stadium. It towers over the rest of the 25,400 capacity venue and is so steep that it feels dangerous. At least there's a net at the front to catch you if you fall. It's intended to stop naughty visitors throwing objects on home fans below, but all it achieves is obstructing the view so you seem to be watching the game through someone else's glasses.

Villarreal, who do so much to promote their club to the local community and offer generous discounts on season tickets (and free tickets to former holders who have lost their job in Spain's economic slide), have an equally strange pricing policy. Visiting English fans have been charged £75 to sit in the towering stand that dominates the town.

The new stand is the only part of El Madrigal which you can see from the training ground a kilometre away. There, fans are welcome to drive their cars right to the side of the pitch and watch the team who have finished in the top eight in Spain every season since 2004 go through their paces. There are usually gaggles of old men who walk to watch training, where they might be asked by Brazil striker Nilmar to throw the ball back, or Giuseppe Rossi if he wasn't injured. Villarreal feels like a small family home, the football team like a massive extension built onto a tiny terraced house.

Building made the cerebral Roig rich. The construction industry bought his tiles and ceramics and Spain rode the wave of the construction boom. Roig's company has expanded into booming Brazil, but there have been severe cut-backs in the domestic market and Roig has been more cautious in what he spends on Villarreal.

Last summer, he accepted a bid of €21 million for Spanish international winger Santi Cazorla — a healthy return on the €1.2 million he'd cost. It was good business, but it was bad business. Cazorla was Villarreal's best player. He played in 37 of their 38 league games last season as they finished fourth and qualified for the Champions League. He was hugely popular with his team mates and with the fans, a catalyst in the dressing room and on the pitch. His departure at the start of the season rocked Villarreal.

When the team got off to their worst ever Primera Liga start, the word 'Cazorla' haunted the town when maybe it would have been more appropriate to blame the worst injury list in Spain. By November, Villarreal had seven of their regular first choice XI out, including their impressive front two of Nilmar and Rossi, who bagged 49 between them last season. That's a lot of goals to take out of a side.

They also had to contend with a Champions League qualifier followed by the toughest group alongside Bayern Munich, Napoli and Manchester City. Villarreal, who have excelled in Europe in previous seasons, lost all six games. Could Cazorla have done much about that?

Heads dropped and the already grim mood in the town turned bleaker. Some players, who could handle living in a football outpost when things were going well, yearned for bigger, brighter lights, but the scouts stopped coming to watch the likes of Nilmar. Because he was injured too. Players felt they were in a sinking ship. Well, what did they expect playing for the Yellow Submarines?

Coach Juan Carlos Garrido was an honest man. He didn't slip or stumble into a lifeboat, but did his best to get results with half a team. Just eight players have started more than half the league games; it's 11 at Madrid and Barcelona, 12 at Valencia, the three teams who finished above them last season.

Garrido was sacked — with reluctance — in December. Villarreal were 19th with just three wins from 16 games and that LLLLLL record to embarrass them in the Champions League.

He was replaced by Villarreal B coach Jose Molina, the local boy who was famous for being Deportivo La Coruna's goalkeeper who overcame cancer in 2002. Molina had done well at Villarreal B, who along with Barca B, are the only reserve teams in Spain's second tier. Success was keeping them in the second level and the old men only had to shuffle around to an adjoining pitch to watch those games, while reminiscing about Cazorla.

What they didn't realise is that no town with an equivalent population has been so spoiled by footballing riches in Europe in recent seasons. They had a first AND second division side to watch on their doorstep, when cities four or five times the size like Vitoria, Burgos, Leon, Albacete, Lleida, Logrono or neighbouring Castellon didn't have either.

Molina has turned things around. Players have returned and confidence levels are rising. "Things don't come off for you when you are down," stated Nilmar when I went to see him recently. Molina's record of three wins, two draws and a loss from his first six games have seen the team improve slowly but steadily. Nilmar is back, Marcos Senna too. Rossi should return in April, by which time the team could be competing for a European place.

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