Think back to 2005. Vila-real was not even a dot on the Spanish map (literally). The factory town of 50,000 inhabitants had a team firmly ensconced in Spain's top flight (until this past season). And after a fourth-place finish the year before, Villarreal had qualified for the UEFA Champions League. About to become the talk of Europe.
Led by South Americans from the manager on down, Villarreal entered the group stage proper after defeating Everton in a two-legged play-off. Not satisfied with that achievement on its Champions League debut, the Yellow Submarine then topped a group featuring Benfica, Lille, and Manchester United.
On matchday six, little-used Antonio Guayre scored the only goal in a sleepy match in France. I quietly celebrated in the back of a Barcelona bar showing all eight matches, having smuggled in €1 grocery store box red wine under the table. The rest of the bar was fixated on the Red Devils' crash-and-burn operation in Portugal. Good times.
In the round of sixteen, Villarreal overcame Celtic Glasgow on away goals. Then came the quarterfinals, and a legend was born: Rodolfo Arruabarrena.
In the last eight, Villarreal faced Italian giants Inter Milan, with the first leg to be played at the San Siro. In the era before DVR, wearing my new home jersey (€50 from an Indian shopkeeper on Las Ramblas, using the patented walk-away technique), I eagerly awaited the re-air at 8 pm on ESPN2. But some technician in Bristol ruined my night.
Our blond bomber Diego Forlan scored before the match was ten minutes old, silencing the home support, but I never saw the final eighty minutes. Why? ESPN was still in its amateur soccer broadcasting phase, so the bottom line ticker contained scores from all of the day's games. Including the very Inter Milan 2-1 Villarreal that was airing for the first time.
While the TV coverage was poor, the result was more than acceptable. Villarreal needed just a clean sheet and a goal to advance to the Champions League semifinals, and El Madrigal was ready for the occasion. For the match, I skipped class (undergrad; enough said) and picked out a South African pub in noted soccer haven Charlottesville, Virginia. I dragged along two friends to watch on Setanta Sports(!), while the other handful of patrons took in the match involving a bigger team on ESPN.
Villarreal tried to carry play, but the Inter Milan defense held firm, so we were scoreless at halftime. After the restart, Yellow Submarine fans were hoping for a set piece to witness more of Juan Román Riquelme's magic. And it came, albeit from a free kick in a seemingly tame position. With perhaps the most unassuming of heroes.
Video from the stands at El Madrigal (via crackgroc)
The free kick was perfectly weighted, and Inter Milan goalkeeper Francesco Toldo perhaps should not have come for it. But a yellow shirt still had to finish it off. And so a legend was born: Rodolfo Arruabarrena. I still get chills recollecting the Spanish commentator: "Arrrrrrrrrrrruaaaaaaaaaabarrrrrrrrrenaaaaaaaaaaaaa!"
Villarreal battened down the hatches after the goal and ultimately held on after a nervy final few minutes. In the semifinals, Riquelme's missed penalty in the 90th minute against Arsenal was soul-crushing. But when I exultantly left the bar after the quarterfinal win, even the bartender knew about the little team in yellow that could. Priceless.
That moment sealed my Villarreal fandom for life. Even after my favorite players departed. Even after we were relegated. Share your favorite Villarreal moments in the comments.