There were two minutes to go and the most extraordinary story was about to be written, or so it goes. The football team from a tiny, unremarkable little town in Spain that had spent most of its history in the regional third tier and was playing its first Champions League campaign, a miracle in itself, had just been awarded a penalty. Score, and it would take them into extra time in front of their fans and against a side who were down to 10 men, bringing the final of the biggest competition there is within touching distance.
Vila Real has a population of 50,577. No place this small had ever had a team win a European trophy, and no one there ever really imagined that they would either. At least not until now. This moment was huge — inconceivably so, one that shouldn’t have happened in the first place and wouldn’t happen again. The man on whose shoulders it lay knew that. You probably know what happened next: Juan Roman Riquelme’s penalty was saved by Arsenal goalkeeper Jens Lehmann and Villarreal‘s dream disintegrated.
Riquelme never watched it again, but he didn’t need to and nor did anyone else; this was burned into their brains. In the stands at El Madrigal was an 8-year-old boy from the town, sitting with his mother and his brother. He had grabbed a man he didn’t know when they got the penalty and hugged him; now, he broke down in tears.
Sixteen years later to the month, Pau Torres was there again, only down on the pitch this time. These days Pau — “el xiquet del poble,” they call him, “the boy from the town” — plays for Villarreal. He’s part of the team that, on Wednesday night, took them closer to reaching another Champions League semifinal than they have ever been since, by claiming a famous 1-0 win over Bayern Munich in the first leg of their quarterfinal at El Madrigal. Except the stadium is now called the Ceramica, after the industries that surround the town, sustaining it and its club, too.
This was historic, a moment that might not happen again, which is precisely why Pau is still around. Last season, Pau, like every single one of his teammates, scored a penalty in an astonishing shootout as Villarreal won the Europa League. Before the game, coach Unai Emery had urged his players to do it for “Pau’s town” and they had, becoming the smallest place ever to win a European trophy.
They had done it against Manchester United, the team with a ground big enough to fit the entire town in and still have almost 30,000 spare seats. Along the way, they defeated Arsenal, who beat them in the semifinal in 2006 and in the quarterfinal in 2009 — some closure to go with the celebration. Those results had lingered in part because Villarreal only ever had one more season in the Champions League. In 2011-12, they went out at the group stage having lost every game.
Winning last year’s Europa League brought them back again, and kept Pau at the club. In the summer, there had been offers from all over Europe — offers that meant him quadrupling his salary and offers that Villarreal did not just accept, but welcomed. They would have sold; at a transfer fee of around €60 million, they would have gift-wrapped him. Not because they wanted to get rid of him — they’d known him almost all his life, a lad it was impossible not to like — but because that’s the model, the way it has to be. There would have been pride in seeing him progress; one of their own out there in the big wide world.
The thing is, Pau didn’t want to leave. The conversation was the opposite of how these things normally go: They listened to his arguments as to why he wanted to stay, not leave. A financial opportunity might be lost — who knows if those buyers would be back again, if the offers would be the same — but Villarreal accepted it, because how could they do anything else? How could they ever force him, of all people? And because they admired him, appreciating the kid they’d educated too, demonstrating that he had grown into the man they’d hoped he would be.
And because they agreed. Pau knew. He knew that this was only the fourth time that Villarreal would have played in the Champions League. He knew how hard it was for them to be back again any time soon, possibly even ever. He knew that it was a unique opportunity, that it would probably be for one year only, and he wanted to be part of it. It was his dream (his words). It was his team, the team of his life (again, his words). Unrepeatable, he called it. A one-off. And so don’t be surprised if this summer he does go, if it’s right for everyone, but this season he wasn’t going to.
There were good players still at the club, too — Gerard Moreno had extended his contract, Arnaut Danjuma had arrived from Bournemouth — and so there was a chance to experience something special and actually leave a mark.
Something like beating Bayern Munich.
Even getting this far was a huge achievement, history made. Villarreal had been beaten twice by Manchester United, somehow. In both games they had been far the better team, only to be caught twice at the very end. But, victorious over Atlanta, they found their way through the group, success in itself. (This is only their third time ever, remember.) Then they went to Turin and won 3-0 against Juventus. It was quite possibly the best result in their entire European history, barely believable … except that it was followed by this victory against the Bundesliga champions.
Even Bayern’s coach, Julian Nagelsmann, had admitted they were favourites; frankly, they’d drawn the side that everyone wanted in the quarterfinals. Villarreal’s nickname is the “Yellow Submarine,” with one headline declaring this “a submarine against a cruise liner.” Maybe the analogy didn’t entirely work — the cosy cartoon cohabitation of the Beatles is one thing, but many real subs are better in a battle, armed to the teeth and huge, too — but you knew what they meant. Bayern are the biggest. Villarreal… well, they aren’t. This wasn’t exactly an equal fight, everyone thought.
And so it proved, only the other way around. Asked afterwards if he’d seen this coming, Nagelsmann said: “No.”
Others had, or at least thought there was a chance. Giovani Lo Celso knew. “Emery has a plan and we have to follow it,” he had said. Joaquin once joked about getting in the popcorn, so long were Emery’s video sessions. A Villarreal player this week admitted that he has never seen anything like it, and that’s with Emery admitting that he’s trying to make those sessions shorter.
Alberto Moreno cracks up when he thinks about it. “The players talk about it,” he admits. “We all say ‘Ufff, another video! But the fact is you then go out on the pitch and you do things well because you have had that hour watching the opponents.”
On Wednesday, Villarreal could not have done things better or, actually, maybe they could. “We will have to be almost perfect,” Emery had said beforehand, and they were. Almost. He turned the wide men inside, populated the centre of the pitch, and took control. Danjuma’s early goal gave Villarreal the lead and made him, the man who was playing in the Championship last season, into the club’s all-time top scorer in the Champions League. Ultimately, it gave Villarreal a 1-0 win against Bayern Munich.
Sometimes the small-town thing can wear a bit thin — yeah, sorry about that! — and this is neither an overnight success nor inexplicable. As the club’s CEO Fernando Roig Negueroles, son of president Fernando Roig, points out, this is a club that had a small ground, a smaller history and nowhere to train when the family took over a quarter of a century ago. But he correctly insists that investment has been significant and it is solidly built. They are established in the elite: they’ve spent 22 years in LaLiga, 15 years in Europe, and they are chasing a sixth European semifinal after reaching that stage in 2004, 2006, 2011, 2016 and 2021.
Emery, different to the men who’d run the team before, a man with a track record, was employed in part to take that next step, which of course he did in winning the Europa League last season. Before Wednesday night’s game, the motivational part of Emery’s prematch talk focused on convincing his players they could be Bayern’s equals, reminding them of those other big games in which they’d played well and upset the odds — an approach that requires those games to exist in the first place.
And yet this is still huge. It’s not a one-off exactly, but it feels like one. Take a walk around the streets of the town and it still can feel inexplicable. It is important not to be patronising, but this isn’t the kind of place where you expect this kind of game to be played; it can still feel incongruous even after all these years. It is a town where the away team, for example, never stays because there is no hotel for them to stay in. And moments like this still hold that feeling of magic, of something special, something new, something almost slightly surreal.
Beating Bayern is big. Even seeing Bayern here, their bus parked outside their hotel in Castellon, the provincial capital down the road, is big. As Villarreal’s bus rolled in, thousands were there to greet it, the tight streets around the ground turned yellow. “Football is feeling and that was the best part,” Emery said. But the best part followed on the field. This was the finest game in the club’s history, the president Fernando Roig said afterwards; they had defeated a giant. It is a select group: in the past five years, only Real Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain and Liverpool had beaten Bayern in Europe.
Six-time European champions, Bayern had won seven and drawn one this season. They hadn’t lost away in Europe since 2017 when they were beaten by a PSG side coached by, yes, Emery. Bayern had played on the road 25 times since then. They had won 20 of them, scoring over 70 goals. They had drawn, but never been beaten, until now. Now they had lost 1-0. And that was the good news.
At the final whistle, there was a huge cheer from the Ceramica, yellow flags waving all around the ground, history made. But look at the players, or listen to them after, and it’s a bit different. Dani Parejo clenched his fists, raising his arms in celebration, but it was quite brief. Many of the others look almost a little down; quite a few of them literally look down, their heads hung slightly. They had beaten Bayern, done something unique, taken a step closer to a semifinal few thought they would reach and they’re… disappointed?! And that might be the most eloquent comment of all.
This was no smash and grab. No bus was parked and luck was ridden. Villarreal didn’t just beat Bayern; they were better than them. “Today we deserved to lose. They could have scored more,” Nagelsmann said.
Three or four more, no exaggeration. There was a goal disallowed for a marginal offside that had not been seen by anyone and had not impacted on the scoring move. An Alfonso Pedraza effort into the side-netting, the goal at his mercy. Gerard Moreno thudded one shot against the post and has another that faded wide from the halfway line, Manuel Neuer desperately sprinting back to an open goal that he was never going to reach. A vital interception from Alphonso Davies. At the end, Danjuma shook his head at the fact that he hadn’t scored a second of his own.
“The result is ‘short’ — we had various chances to have scored more,” Lo Celso said, while Parejo insisted: “We’re happy with the game, but not so much the score; we feel a bit unsatisfied. We were very, very, very superior.” Emery called it “insufficient.” In their finest hour, there was a sense of missed opportunity — that’s how good they had been and how good Bayern are.
Parejo sounded very down, almost beaten, when he noted: “I’m totally convinced that the second leg will be very different.” At the Allianz, the task remains titanic, Bayern still favourites. But Parejo added “nothing in football is impossible” and Villarreal are proof of that.
This might one day be looked back on as another missed opportunity, a one-off that’s never coming back. Like they floored the giant but didn’t finish him off, and you know that big guy’s getting up again. But whatever happens, they will always have this, the kind of implausible moment that football is made of, the whole point of the whole thing, the reason Pau Torres stayed for another season, to live this in his town, with his team. “Yes, we can!” the fans chanted at the end of a night where they were closer to a Champions League semifinal than at any time since he had sat where they were now, experiencing something none of them ever imagined.