VILLARREAL, SPAIN - AUGUST 23: Giuseppe Rossi (C) of Villarreal CF celebrates victory at the end of the UEFA Champions League playoff match between Villarreal CF and Odense BK at El Madrigal on August 23, 2011 in Villarreal, Spain. (Photo by Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images)
As I pause to remember the VIllarreal sides of my youth--the brilliant 2005-2006 side that dominated the Champions League with an artistic flair--it's important not to forget that Segunda División isn't death, or hell. It's purgatory. And this team will be back.
When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art, and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts my self almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
(William Shakespeare, Sonnet 29)
At the end of 2006, Argentinian playmaker Juan Román Riquelme was arguably one of the five best players in the world; during that magical season he had made a name for himself by guiding an up and coming Villarreal side’s prodigious attack. He methodically, relentlessly conducted a well-balanced, flowing attack, repeatedly finding a young Uruguayan striker by the name of Diego Forlán on the end of his crosses.
It was a different era. Tiki-taka was not part of the modern soccer vernacular; Real Madrid’s starting lineup consisted of some combination of Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo (the Brazilian, pudgy one), Raúl, Michael Owen, and David Beckham. The world was infatuated with bright lights, name-brand footballers; funny-face Ronaldinho was lighting the world on fire with superb dribbling skills and brilliant combinations with a scrawny Argentinian making his debut in Primera for Barcelona. Italy won the World Cup that summer thanks to a stunning defensive display from a young Juventus centerback named Fabio Cannavaro.
If nothing else, Juan Román Riquelme, who never seemed to be running, never seemed to be trying to move the ball quickly, came about in just the wrong era. His brilliant Villarreal side that so effortlessly dominated the ball, and seemed to flow like water over the pitch was chronically underrated, passed over for the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona, and the Italian defensive giants. More than Barcelona, more than Real Madrid, the Villarreal of the mid-2000’s was the Spanish side to watch if you thought of football as art, and visualized offense as a moving tapestry of colors, shapes and spaces. They played Barcelona football before Barcelona; and they played it before it was cool.
Then, six years later, it all stopped.
On Sunday, May 14, Villarreal lost to Atlético Madrid 0-1 in El Madrigal, their beautiful home stadium. A place of joy and grace, the pitch was suddenly sullen, the yellow nets hanging mournfully while Columbian Radamel Falcao danced after scoring the winner. Minutes later, though it seemed like hours, the news broke that Rayo Vallecano had scored at the last second, inching past Villarreal on the table and condemning the side of Riquelme, Forlán, Nihat and Rossi (the same side that began the year in the UEFA Champions League) to a year (or more) in the purgatory of Segunda.
The owner, Fernando Roig, wept. The fans were stunned. "When the Falcao goal happened I basically sat in shock," said Allen Dodson, editor of VillarrealUSA via email. "And I sat in shock as the news came through of the Rayo goal too. We still had a chance but Ruben's shot went wide, but I hardly noticed it."
Commentators—both with knowledge of the situation and without—have been quick to pick apart Villarreal’s path to relegation. Blame the coaches, Garrido, Molina and finally Lotina, some have proclaimed; blame the management for hiring the damned coaches, say others. Some have even suggested that relegation was almost inevitable, arguing that the loss of World Champions Santi Cazorla and Joan Capdevila over the summer, coupled with the crippling injury to Giuseppe Rossi ultimately sealed the Submarine’s fate.
Ultimately, however, Villarreal simply did not win when they needed to win. "I felt confident we would be OK until we started drawing home matches we needed to win," Allen said. "After the Osasuna draw I began to expect we would go down. Rayo playing poorly gave us a lifeline, as did us winning at Sporting, but the handwriting was on the wall. Too many draws when we needed wins."
All of that may well be true; in fact, it all probably is.
But I’m not here to assess the merits of Villarreal’s organizational structure, or fault players and coaches for not doing certain things in certain games—I’ll leave that job to other people, like Allen and the VillarrealUSA crew, who have undertaken this highly unpleasant task with a pride that belies their disappointment.
No, my job is to write a short eulogy for the Villarreal side of my youth. Over the next few months we will see players shipped off, budgets tightened, and new faces arrive. Marcos Senna, the Captain, and their remaining link to the Riquelme-Nihat-Forlan era, will probably leave. Giuseppe Rossi, the team's great hope, might have to be traded because of budget considerations.
The Villarreal team that I fell in love with—despite my allegiance to one of their rivals—died lying down in the mud yesterday; the Villarreal team that will hopefully make a triumphant return to Primera will bare no resemblance to Juan Román Riquelme’s side, except, of course, for their brilliant yellow shirts.
For help mourning Villarreal's relegation--and other news about the submarino--check out VillarrealUSA, SBNation's Villarreal site.