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The Day Football Won and Villarreal lifted a trophy

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Unai Emery wins his fourth Europa League title in the most dramatic fashion.

FBL-EUR-C3-VILLARREAL-MAN UTD Photo by MICHAEL SOHN/AFP via Getty Images

Earlier this year, football was betrayed. Twelve of the largest clubs in the world, including Villarreal’s Europa League semi-final and final foes Arsenal and Manchester United, announced that they would be breaking away from UEFA and forming a mostly closed league where the richest clubs got even richer and the rest of us benefited from the benevolence of their willingness to take our best players.

It was sickening for football fans all over the globe, including millions of fans of those very clubs that sought to disenfranchise everyone else. The notion of the super league was quickly suppressed- though in a way that made corrupt UEFA more powerful than ever- yet in every nation where teams had tried to defect, one of the ‘super league’ clubs won the league title.

Similar fates seemed to await the European competitions. Roma got blown away early by Manchester United, PSG got beat by Manchester City (though the Parisian club is hardly a representative of traditional football values themselves) and Villarreal gave up an away goal to 10 man Arsenal. Through sheer force of will and tactical guile we survived that second leg, and set up an appointment with Manchester United in yesterday’s final.

When we posted yesterday after the match that ‘football’ had won, many commenters derided the style of play used by Unai Emery’s men. Practical in the extreme, Villarreal used to well organized banks of four to choke out Manchester United’s offense and it worked. Marcus Rashford played poorly, Bruno Fernandes never really got involved in the match, and only a failed clearance on our part gave them the opportunity they scored in regular time. This, of course, is not the game at its most beautiful.

But the reason football won yesterday has nothing to do with tactics and everything to do with the spirit of the game we all love. Villarreal took on a team who outspends them by hundreds of millions of euros, whose shares are traded on the stock market, who in recent years have owned the world transfer record and who betrayed football to join the European Super League. They contested that icon of football commercialism largely with free signings, players who had represented Villarreal in Segunda, and an 18 year old kid from our very own academy. Villarreal was high level football at its most sustainable, exactly what every less monied club could hope to be.

When Atletico Madrid won La Liga, most Spanish football fans of non-big three clubs were glad that one of Barcelona or Real Madrid didn’t lift the title. But as I explained to our friends at our Atletico Madrid sister site here on the SBN network, Atleti winning a title doesn’t give hope to clubs like us. They have a 100m+ euro player of their own, play in a stadium three times the size of ours, and play in Madrid.

Villarreal CF v Manchester United - UEFA Europa League Final Photo by Mateus Slodkowski/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

By contrast, when a club from Vila-real wins a major European honor, with a self-sustaining model that spends only what it takes in, with a stadium that seats 20,000 people, simply by wisdom and discernment and a few good bounces along the way, football fans everywhere can dream that their club can one day do the same thing. That, ultimately, is what football is all about, dreaming. And when the Manchester United’s and Super League clubs of the world soak up every single available trophy and rob poorer clubs of their best players and risk murdering the sport itself just to expand their own revenues, those dreams become faint for the rest of us. On Wednesday, May 26th, 2021, football gave us a reminder that those dreams should never die because a club like ours can take their chance and fulfill the hopes of their fans. For that reason, football won.