12,000 is a pretty low attendance for a Premier League match between two teams chasing European football. True but when consider the population of the home team’s town is only 50,000 then it’s not so surprising. Of all the towns and cities that have teams in La Liga the smallest is Villareal, home of the yellow submarine.
Most football fans around Europe have heard of Villareal CF. Over the last 5 or 6 years they have been regulars in European competitions, even reaching a Champions League semi-final back in 2006. As well as being known for their bright yellow strips, hence the nickname, they are also known for their attractive football. Top players such as Diego Forlán and Juan Roman Riquelme have played for them in recent years. What most people abroad probably don’t know about Villareal is that it’s a tiny wee place that not even many Spaniards could locate on a map. It’s so small that it only has 10 licensed taxi drivers, not even enough to make a football team. Chick Young once described it as the Wishaw of Spain. I wouldn’t go that far but it’s not exactly picturesque.
Villareal is located in the region of Valencia. To get there, you have to go Castellón, the nearest big place. Castellón is quite similar to Villareal except bigger and with a beach. The region might not be the prettiest but it’s an important one as it’s the centre of the Spanish ceramic industry. It’s this industry that Villareal the city and now the football team owe much of their existence to.
The football club is owned by Fernando Roig, a business man who has made most of his money in the ceramic industry. Roig is more of a Brooks Mileson than a Roman Abramovich, taking a very small town team from the fourth division all the way up to the Premier League and into Europe. The only difference being that Villareal has maintained it while Gretna went bust.
While many people in Scotland resented what Gretna did and how they did it, Villareal are a club to be admired and copied here in Spain. They aren’t a club who simply buy the best players of everyone else, they produce their own. In fact they are the only club in La Liga whose B team play in the second division. Not only are Villareal B surviving in the second division they are currently sixth (above Real Betis) and 7 points off a promotion place which they can never gain due to Villareal already being in La Liga. The biggest recent success story of the Villareal system is Spanish international Santi Cazorla, originally from Asturias but signed as a teenager by Villareal. Cazorla is one of 4 Villareal players who are part of the Spanish squad, very impressive for a team outside the top two. There is no denying that Villareal have also benefited from buying foreign talent but they have bought quality players who have improved the standard of the team.
After losing legendary manager Manuel Pelligrini to Real Madrid, Villareal started this season very poorly by their standards but have recovered sufficiently to make it into the top 10. However, the late revival didn’t save the manager’s job and they recently replaced him with Juan Carlos Garrido, former coach of Villareal B. Last Saturday was his first home match in charge and I was there to see it.
Villareal’s stadium, the Madrigal, holds 25,000 which means they literally need half the town to turn out to fill it. As the game was at 22.00 and live on TV, only 12,000 people bothered. The 50 euro price for the home end might also have had something to do with it. Bizarrely, it was only 25 euros to sit in the away end.
The atmosphere? Well I don’t know how many people you need to officially have a group of Ultras but I don’t think 3 is enough. The three guys in question gave it their best shot, they even had a drum, but they were on their own. It’s not really surprising though, given the size of the town and the only recent history of success. Apparently they only got a few hundred people through the gates when they were in the fourth division. Perhaps the next generation of Villareal supporters will be more vocal. The match itself, against Atheltic Bilbao, was a decent one. In the end the home team did just enough to deserve their 2-1 victory and keep themselves on course for a European place. Due to the late kick-off I left the stadium around midnight and faced the challenge of getting back to my hotel in Castellón. Villareal is not Madrid, there is no public transport after 11.00 at night. No buses. No trains. So in the end there was only thing for it, find one of those 10 taxi drivers.