LIBERATING FOOTBALL TRAVEL

Villarreal CF

We all live in a Submarí Groguet, a Submarí Groguet...

A fan’s guide – the club from early doors to today

Europa League winners in 2021, Champions League semi-finalists a year later, Spain’s surprisingly successful Villarreal CF represent a community less than twice the capacity of their modest Estadio de la Cerámica.

The 90th anniversary and promotion celebrations of 2013 gave way to five solid seasons in the top six of La Liga, the ‘Yellow Submarine’ of Vila-real resurfacing after a brief but dramatic season in the Segunda.

Before the great comeback, players had left in droves. The coach charged with leading Villarreal back up to the top flight, Manuel Preciado Rebolledo, had died of a heart attack the very day he was hired. Given the circumstances, Villarreal’s clamber to a promotion place in 2013 must be seen as an achievement as impressive as the club’s three European semi-final appearances before then.

Estadio de la Cerámica/Marianne Duncombe

Founded in 1923, Villarreal originally played in white shirts before changing to their signature yellow after the Spanish Civil War. Based at the stadium until recently known as El Madrigal the entire time, Villarreal spent 75 years in the lower reaches before an unlikely promotion in 1998.

The jump coincided with the arrival of Fernando Roig as president, who poured money earned from the lucrative local ceramics industry into the club.

Although relegated in their first season, Villarreal bounced straight back – and stayed there. With goals from Victor and Jorge López, Villarreal kept afloat before the arrival of players such as Sonny Anderson, Diego Forlán and Juan Riquelme.

Between 2004 and 2011, the club didn’t finish lower than eighth, even making a runners-up spot in 2008. Behind this phenomenal performance was Chilean manager Manuel Pellegrini, taking this little-known club to the heights of the European game for his first job outside South America. Here he made his name as one of the best coaches in the business, and it took a considerable buy-out payment from Real Madrid to wrest him from Villarreal in 2009.

Memorable European nights included a wins over Roma and Celtic en route to a narrow defeat by local rivals Valencia in the UEFA Cup semi-final of 2004, a win over Middlesbrough the next season, and two wins over Everton for a debut appearance in the Champions League of 2005-06.

A defeat-free topping of their group, in which Manchester United finished bottom, allowed Villarreal to get past both Rangers and Internazionale on away goals. It took a late penalty save from Jens Lehmann at El Madrigal to prevent a semi-final clash with Arsenal going to extra-time. The culprit was the otherwise impeccable Riquelme.

Villarreal again topped their group in the UEFA Cup of 2007-08, as they did for the Europa League campaign of 2010-11, overcoming Napoli and Bayer Leverkusen before a high-scoring semi-final defeat to Porto. Nilmar, Giuseppe Rossi and Santi Cazorla got among the goals, but only the stalwart Cani stayed with the club through their difficult stint in the Segunda in 2012-13.

It took a change of management, Marcelino García Toral taking over in midstream, but Villarreal climbed from a tenth position halfway through the campaign to pip Almería at the post in 2013. Cani, Marcos Senna and Bruno Soriano remained from the old guard, the veteran Senna leaving for New York before the top-flight campaign. But it was goalkeeper Sergio Asenjo, and his regular clean sheets, that kept Villarreal in the top six in 2013-14 and 2014-15.

A run to the semi-finals in the Europa League in 2015 ended in a late 1-0 win over Liverpool, Villarreal’s narrow advantage soon snuffed out at Anfield. Outclassed by Monaco, Roma and Lyon in subsequent European campaigns, Villarreal welcomed the return of old boy Santi Cazorla from Arsenal for 2018-19. 

Royally welcomed and beating Riquelme’s record as the club’s highest-scoring midfielder, Cazorla played two full seasons for his first club, pushing them back into the European frame by the time he left for Qatar in 2020. It’s as well he did, because under the incoming Unai Emery – seeking redemption after a sorry exit from Arsenal halfway through the previous season – Villarreal made their first European final after two decades of near misses.

Unbeaten in the league for three months, Emery’s team had landed a relatively easy group in the Europa League, then brushed aside beatable opponents to find Arsenal barring their way to the final. With Gerard Moreno finding prime form in his second spell in yellow, Villarreal should have gone to London with more than a 2-1 lead after a ding-dong first leg in Spain. 

In an emotional night at the Emirates despite the lack of spectators during the pandemic, Villarreal held firm against Emery’s previous employers. Making a European final at last, owner Roig spoke of the long journey his club had taken, while Vila-real-born centre-back Pau Torres described crying as a boy after Arsenal had knocked his local team out of the Champions League in 2006.

Shifted to Gdańsk from the original Seville, the decider with Manchester United ended with the longest penalty shoot-out at a major final, all 20 outfield players converting until Argentine goalkeeper Gerónimo Rulli became a hero twice over. First saving the spot-kick from his United counterpart, David de Gea, the former Manchester City man put away his own penalty to earn Villarreal their first major silverware.

The fans in yellow behind the shoot-out goal went bananas, and Emery had won his fourth Europa League trophy.

In 2021-22, he wasn’t that far away from taking his Villarreal side to a first-ever Champions League final. Thumping Juventus in Turin, overcoming Bayern with a draw in Munich, VCF had performed miracles to reach the penultimate stage. Even without ex-Bournemouth striker Arnaut Danjuma, Villarreal’s top scorer that season, Emery’s team played the best 45 minute’s in the club’s history to level the aggregate score to 2-2 by half-time of the second leg. Liverpool, having gone to Spain on the back of a 2-0 lead from Anfield, were in trouble.

Then an inspired show from Reds’ substitute Luis Díaz changed things around at the Estadio de la Cerámica, once heroic goalkeeper Rulli at fault for at least one of the three goals the visitors replied with. Liverpool were in the final. 

As a club, Villarreal could look back on 25 years of Roig rule, during which time they had not only joined Spain’s chasing elite but defeated some of the biggest names in Europe, season after season after season. Few would begrudge the team, or their fans, further success. Their stadium, meanwhile, is getting another overhaul in the first part of 2022-23, meaning that home games will be moved to Levante’s ground in Valencia until Christmas.

Stadium Guide

The field of dreams – and the stands around it

Inaugurated the same year as Villarreal’s foundation, the Estadio de la Cerámica is now approaching its centenary. It took until the club’s 75th anniversary in 1998 for the stadium, then called El Madrigal after the rural land it had been built on, to be modernised.

That was also when its tenants first gained promotion to La Liga. Before then, mainly regional football had been played out before a few hundred fans in the covered main stand and Fondo Sur behind the south goal. Both were demolished and rebuilt, a Fondo Norte constructed as well as Preferencia stand opposite the main one.

By 1999-2000, Villarreal had a stadium, though modest, worthy of top-flight football. Within five years, the club had qualified for the Champions League and serious improvements were needed for the visits of Manchester United, Rangers and Arsenal. Yellow tiling gave the Madrigal its signature look, and the dressing rooms and press area were modernised. 

Another major development came in 2008 with the opening of the Grada Visitante, the away stand, the top tier of the Fondo Norte, accommodating 2,300 visiting supporters, around a tenth of the overall capacity.

El Madrigal remained one of a dying breed of downtown stadia, surrounded by bars and shops a short walk from the main square. The home faithful still gather in the Fondo Sur, the top half covered, alongside the Plaça del Llaurador, visiting supporters accessing their sectors from Carrer Molí Bisbal. The main Tribuna Central on Carrer Blasco Ibáñez contains the press and VIP areas, opposite the Preferencia on Carrer Benicàssim. There is no room for further expansion.

There was scope for club owner Fernando Roig to rebrand, however. The tile magnate who had transformed the club from backwater nobodies to European regulars oversaw the conversion of El Madrigal to the Estadio de la Cerámica in 2017. 

More than a mere name change, the stadium became the showcase for his tile empire – and that of others, ceramic companies from the Castellón area given space to advertise their brand. The Fondo Sur now gleamed anew with high-grade porcelain stoneware, providing both thermal insulation and solar protection. 

A public square was also created outside, bringing the stadium into the community and allowing for better circulation on match days. Its flooring, of course, is tiled.

There’s more to come. During the first half of the 2022-23 season, the Estadio de la Cerámica is again being overhauled, meaning the club is moving its home games to Levante’s ground in Valencia, until Christmas. 

Back in Vila-real, a new stand is being built between the corner of the Preferencia and Fondo Sur. A new roof will not only cover all seats but allow for better LED lighting and scoreboards, while a club museum is also being installed. Overall capacity will remain at 22,000.

getting there

Going to the stadium – tips and timings

From Vila-real station, you can take a taxi for a fare of under €10 or walk the 20min, straight up Passeig de l’Estació, turning right at some point for three blocks, and then straight up in the same direction. 

If you’re at the main square already, head for nearby Plaça Colom, then straight up Carrer Ermita. You’ll soon hit the pre-match bars.

getting in

Buying tickets – when, where, how and how much

The club has three main ticket outlets, as well as online sales. Note that for the first half of the 2022-23 season, home games are being played at Levante’s stadium in Valencia. Fixtures move back to Vila-real from late December.

in person, you can buy tickets from the club shop (Mon-Fri 10am-1.30pm, 5pm-8pm, Sat 10am-1.30pm) at the stadium, from the Villarreal store on the main square (Plaça Major 19, ticket desk Mon-Sat 10am-2pm) or, from 2hrs before kick-off, from the stadium ticket office beside the club shop on Carrer Blasco Ibáñez.

With capacity at 22,000, availability is always limited, though you should be able to find higher-priced seats (€70 and up) in the main stands for less attractive opposition.

what to buy

Shirts, kits, merchandise and gifts

The club has two stores, one at the stadium (Tienda Estadio de la Cerámica, Mon-Fri 10am-1.30pm, 5pm-8pm, Sat 10am-1.30pm, 2hrs before kick-off – but closed May-Dec 2022) and one on the main square (Tienda Oficial Centro, Mon-Fri 10am-8pm, Sat 10am-2pm).

The current yellow shirts have a thin blue trim on collar and cuffs, change strip is a rather uninspiring grey with pinstripes, third choice black with striking yellow markings. Rubber magnets in the shape of the Estadio de la Cerámica should brighten any fridge door, the VCF beach towel will stand out from the array of Barça ones on the Med and snoods are still all the rage in Vila-real, it seems.

Where to Drink

Pre-match beers for fans and casual visitors

The stadium is surrounded by bars, particularly along Carrer Ermita, but many match days start at Plaça del Llaurador, where the rock-oriented Bar del Belga has TV football set up on the terrace.

Over on Carrer Ermita, La Taberna de Milagros has smartened up its act with a neat façade half-hidden by its street terrace and, sadly, cleared away its scarves and old VCF line-ups on the wall. Similarly, a few doors down, the Bar Madrigal now sports a shiny black façade but, steps across from the ground, still attracts yellow-shirted regulars. In between the two, Mesón Los Maños has moved from traditional dishes and hanging hams to a more serious gastro approach. It’s still happy to serve you a beer or glass of wine in the run-up to kick-off, don’t worry.

On Blasco Ibañéz at right-angles to Carrer Ermita, the prime spot, Bar La Tribuna is a must, a two-room beer hall with club history on the walls and scarved evidence of visits by Middlesbrough and other teams. Note the photos of fans celebrating promotion from the third division in May 1970. 

At the stadium, opened in August 2021, El Ceramista in the Fondo Sur is closed until Christmas 2022 due to the rebuild. A long island bar sits between equally smart spaces where Miguel Martí’s upscale Valencian cuisine is served.