European football possesses within it a rich tapestry of clubs, each with a unique history and niche within which they exist. Many clubs stay within the perceived parameters of their place in the greater footballing food chain, making small progressions and regressions during their history, but often not doing enough to alter the status quo.
However, within this spectrum of measurement, there are examples of clubs that have managed to elevate themselves to a higher plain, often with wildly differing degrees of success. In the contemporary era, the chances for clubs to climb the league ladder in established nations such as England and Spain have become harder and harder, as the door to the elite gradually begins to creak shut.
Often the catalyst for small clubs enjoying a rapid rise in fortune is financial investment. Cash is injected into a club and optimism and expectations soar accordingly. This investment is often short-term, and new owners can become frustrated at a perceived lack of success or a return on their investment. Clubs can then overextend by spending beyond their means, chasing an improbable goal of promotion or avoiding relegation. Football is cruel and has little time for plucky underdogs; just ask Málaga fans.
Clubs can also benefit from favourable geography within their domestic league. If a club is the only top-level side within a large catchment area, they can attract an increase of fans in comparison to other clubs that are successful but have to compete with a number of local rivals for a fanbase.
So it appears that the formula of investment plus fan base and geography goes some way to securing progress and success, despite some clubs having little in the way of an X-Factor. Nevertheless, there are clubs that can find the necessary ingredients to build a successful and progressive club, which is both stable and attracts a core of both local and varied fans to drive it onwards.
There are few better examples in the current European game than that of Villarreal CF, based in the Spanish province of Castellón.
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Villarreal CD, known today as Villarreal CF, were founded in March 1923 within incredibly humble and local surroundings on the Spanish east coast thanks to the motivation and planning of locals. As part of its formation, the club was keen to ensure that it remained rooted within the local community, and its first board was made up of local workers seeking to establish organised football in the area.
In fact, Villarreal’s first president, José Calduch Almela, was a local pharmacist, and under his stewardship the club leased a plot of farmland, levelled it out and built their first home ground, the Campo de Deportes. Eager to remain loyal to the local community, Villarreal charged just half a peseta for entry to a game, with children a quarter and women free.
In August that year, Villarreal played their first ever friendly against local side Castellón, who themselves had only formed in July 1922, as football continued to grow in the area.
From 1923 onwards Villarreal entered into the wilderness of provincial Spanish football, competing solely in local competitions, as they sought to develop up the leagues. By the end of the 1934-35 season, the club had won their regional division (Primera Regional) and faced a two-legged play-off against Cartagena for a place in the Segunda División. However, it was to be heartbreak for Villarreal, losing 8-1 on aggregate to the Murcian club. The following season saw the club defend their regional league title, however the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War was to deny them a shot at promotion.
The war caused an almost total suspension of football across Spain, with the country plunged into political and social turmoil until its cessation in 1939.
The club returned to regional competition following the return of football to the country, but in 1942 folded and organised football in Villarreal was in danger of extinction. Unwilling to allow football to disappear from the city, the club’s fans created a number of teams that continued to compete in local and youth competitions.
After four years away from organised football, the leading fans’ team Club Atlético Foghetecaz decided to form a new team under the name of CAF Villarreal, entering back into the Spanish football pyramid.
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One of the biggest changes brought into the club by the Foghetecaz group was to change the club’s shirts to yellow, a colour now synonymous with the club, and in the 1950-51 season they were promoted back into the Primera Regional wearing their bright new jersey.In addition, as part of their ongoing commitment to participating in fan competitions, they also reached the semi-final of the Spanish Fans’ Championship, defeating a representative side from FC Barcelona on the way.
Following their successful return to the Primera Regional, the Foghetecaz board gradually passed control of the club over to a new board of directors with greater financial muscle as the club looked to continue their development.
The biggest change was not to come until 1954, when the club experienced their second name change, to Villarreal CF, as the club completed its moved away from fan ownership. The club debuted their new name at the start of the 1954-55 season, and in 1956 they achieved promotion to the newly created Spanish Third Division, their first appearance in a national league.
In the years that followed Villarreal CF endured a period of yo-yoing between the divisions, including the highs of promotion to the national Segunda División in 1970 levelled out with a crushing drop back into the regional leagues in 1976.
However, the club remained driven by the optimism of their local fans, adopting the nickname ‘The Yellow Submarine’ after fans brought radios to matches and played the popular Beatles song during the 1967-68 promotion season.
Relegations and promotions were a feature of the club right up to the mid-1990s, however supporters stood by their club despite the growth of neighbours Valencia into one of Spain’s leading clubs.
By the 1997-98 season, Villarreal were to experience a huge change in fortune as two significant events occurred to complete their final transition from provincial also-rans to national force. Firstly, in the summer of 1997, the club was bought by Spanish billionaire Fernando Roig, who had developed his fortune as a major shareholder of Spanish supermarket chain Mercadona, and he promised La Liga football within two years.
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Secondly, the club was to beat Roig’s estimation and gain promotion to Spain’s top division after just one season, following a play-off victory over Compostela.
The club had finally reached the promised land of La Liga; a city with a population of just over 50,000 was ready to do battle with Real Madrid, Barcelona and the rest of the Spanish elite.
Admittedly the club’s first stay in top division lasted just one season before being immediately promoted again in 2000, however from there they have continued to defy the odds and establish themselves as a permanent member of the cool kids’ party.
So often, the hallmark of newly promoted clubs is to play it safe and just do enough to survive in La Liga – a risky policy which has seen dozens of sides fall from Spain’s top division since the turn of the century, but Villarreal CF continue to buck the trend.
At the start of the 2003-04 season, they qualified for the UEFA Cup, eventually losing in the competition’s semi-finals to rivals Valencia. The following season they went one better and qualified for the 2005-06 Champions League, following a third-placed La Liga finish, powered by the goals of former Manchester United forward Diego Forlán.
The Yellow Submarine’s journey into the Champions League was to prove to be the pinnacle of their progress, alongside a second place La Liga finish in 2008, as only a Jens Lehmann penalty save against Juan Román Riquelme denied them a dream final against FC Barcelona.
Villarreal have now set a benchmark for developing clubs, not just in Spain but across Europe, in how to achieve and maintain success consistently. Despite their low-key surroundings in comparison to the Santiago Bernabéu or Camp Nou, their 25,000-seater El Madrigal stadium still sits on the same site as their 1923 ground, and they remain just as important a member of the community as ever.
As much as sensible business strategy is essential at Villarreal and helped them reach the top-flight, the force of their fans to keep the club going in the toughest of times ensured its survival and stopped the quite incredible Yellow Submarine from sinking.
By Feargal Brennan. Follow @FeargalBren