By Leo Linden
They haven’t been a solid, top-flight team for long, but Villarreal CF looks poised to be a force in Spain for the long haul. Like many of the other clubs we have written about in this section, Villarreal do not have a cushy history of trophies and a title-challenging side every year. In fact, until three days ago, the club had never sat in first place in La Liga. Sure, it’s only seven games into the season, but for the side which comes from the tiny town of Vila-real, it’s a historic achievement, one that should alarm the Spanish top flight — which is littered with some of Europe’s greatest powerhouses — that the new kids on the block may be here to stay.
El Submarino Amarillo – the Yellow Submarine – spent the majority of its history competing in the Spanish lower leagues, and only relatively recently did the side even make its La Liga debut. The team was founded as Villarreal CD in 1923 as a sports organization with the intention of building not just a footballing club, but an entire sports entity on the East coast of Spain.
In the early years, it played in the regional leagues of Spain, as a national division had yet to be established, and one of the club’s first major accomplishments came just before the Spanish Civil War, when it won the regional top flight for the first time.
After the war, Villarreal slowly began climbing the Spanish footballing pyramid and, in 1954, the club settled upon the name it has today, Villarreal CF. Two years later, the side finally made a big leap, promoting themselves out of the regional leagues and into the national ones, albeit only to the fourth division.
After swaying between the regional and national divide, the club finally found some traction in Spain in the late 1960s and 70s, winning promotion as high as the second division. However, that run was short-lived, as again Villarreal was relegated all the way back to the regional leagues after the end of the 1977 season.
The 1980s were a long haul for El Submarino Amarillo, stuck in the fourth division until, in the latter part of the decade, they were able to make a run and get a foothold in the Segunda B, the newly created third division.
The following decade finally brought the cracking of La Liga. After spending seven straight seasons in the Segunda A, Villarreal earned their first ever chance to compete in the top flight in the 1998-99 season.
Their debut season in the league didn’t go well, however, as the side was quickly bounced back into the second tier after finishing 18th and losing the two-legged relegation playoff 3-0 to Sevilla. The club didn’t dwell on this, however, and finished third the following year to earn promotion directly back to La Liga. They’ve remained a solid side ever since.
For a club which never seemed to find any consistency across the national leagues, Villarreal shockingly ascended up the La Liga table,
Still, though, it was another major accomplishment, as the side was able to compete in its first ever Champions League, and Villarreal did not disappoint. Placed in the third and final qualifying round, they dispatched of Everton over two legs before winning their group of Benfica, Lille and Manchester United, despite only two wins and four draws. From there, the amazing run continued, as they ousted Rangers of Scotland and Inter Milan, both on away goals, to reach the semi-finals.
The buck stopped there, however, as Arsenal were able to finally get the best of the Spanish upstarts. Argentine superstar Juan Riquelme had a penalty saved in the final minutes of a 1-0 aggregate defeat.
It was surely the hardest loss the club has ever had to swallow, but the run spoke for itself and showed that Villarreal was growing in the right direction. Though they haven’t been able to replicate the UCL success, more quality La Liga runs came as El Submarino Amarillo finished second and fourth in 2008 and 2011 — a year in which they also reached the Europa League semi-finals — respectively.
A shock came the following year, however, as Villarreal dropped all the way down to 18th and were relegated. To make matters worse, much of the core that had made up the last few years of La Liga success left as the discontent of the relegation grew.
The suffering ended quickly, however, as, just like the 1999-2000 season, Villarreal won back promotion instantly, and they have finished in sixth the last two seasons.
Now, the side is off to a flying start in the 2015-16
With the season still young, it’d be very hard for anyone to call this squad a serious title contender — especially with the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid around — but El Submarino Amarillo’s army is growing, and no one can take their trips to El Madrigal lightly. Regardless of how the season finishes on the coast of Spain, for a city that has just north of 50,000 people, it’s a pretty amazing feat Villarreal have even made it this far.