July 26, 2011. For Villarreal CF fans, the first day the music died (R.I.P. Manolo Preciado). The adopted son of Vila-real, Spain, a town of just over 50,000 inhabitants, had left for greener pastures. The story of a ceramics industry and country that had fallen on hard times.
Midfielder Santi Cazorla's departure for Málaga CF after a terrific 2010-11 campaign triggered a chain reaction that no one could have envisioned. Sure, the team had lost a finger, as captain Marcos Senna put it. The heart and soul of the changing room, as other players noted. But four fingers of a Champions League hand were enough to succeed in a watered-down La Liga. And maybe even in Europe.
Early returns were poor: three scoreless halves in the Champions League play-off against minnows Odense BK (Denmark). But then Giuseppe Rossi, the other marquee name in the Villarreal shop window in summer 2011 (and still there today), struck a second-half double, and the Yellow Submarine was on its way. To a 5-0 thrashing in Barcelona to kick off the league campaign.
From bad to worse: Villarreal drew the toughest Champions League group ever. Bayern Munich, Manchester City, Napoli: good luck. Add in some key season-ending injuries, including to Rossi and right back Ángel López in the same match, and Villarreal, typically a model of stability, was on its third manager in mid-March.
And worse still: Villarreal crashed out of the Copa del Rey by losing at home to a third-division side. The Yellow Submarine was the first Spanish side to go pointless in the Champions League. And Cazorla himself delivered the hammer blow, scoring without celebration at El Madrigal to condemn his former team ...until a miraculous comeback produced a stoppage time victory. Even Santi seemed to smile at the final whistle.
With no end in sight: But Villarreal could not get out of its own way. Like Real Zaragoza a few years earlier, the Yellow Submarine went from European football to the Segunda in the same season. And it was the prior year's European nemesis Radamel Falcao García who did the honors, scoring with three minutes left in the season to condemn Villarreal.
A silver lining for Santi: After spearheading Málaga's fourth-place finish in La Liga, its best ever, he left Spain for even greener pastures in England with Arsenal FC. For Villarreal fans, a comfort not to be reminded of what could have been twice per season.