By Quazi Zulquarnain Islam
I Was listening to an old Pink Floyd number the other day. You know the one- “Wish You Were Here”- I love the lyrics of the song. I bet a lot of you do too.
Don't you just love the part where it goes
…so you think you can tell, heaven from hell? Blue skies from pain?
And then comes the other part I really like
we're just two lost souls swimming in a fishbowl, year after year…
I just love that line but oddly enough when I listened to it the other day, it reminded me of all things in God's green earth a football team (sorry to disappoint the romantics).
But in my defence it wasn't just your run of the mill football team.
It's a football team that has captured the imagination so far this season with their compact play and their distinctive Latin flair. A football team that possesses a nickname swiped off an old Beatle song.
I am of course talking of the Spanish team Villareal, who stand (as I write this article) on the brink of history. They are into the semifinals of the Champions League with a return leg against Arsenal pending in a game that they have every chance of winning. They may just as well lose it but let us be the romantic here for just a while and say that Villareal did make it to the final in Paris.
irst up it would be a wonderful possibility another reason for us to embrace the game that Pele called joga bonito( the beautiful game). For the fact that a side so heavily humble as Villarreal can get this far is what keeps football alive. Monopolies are one thing, but the essence of sport (and life) is that some day they can be broken. It might take centuries, but just as long as there's hope, there's interest.
That Villareal have come this far is great news for a Spanish league that has been suffering in image terms this year: racist incidents, dire refereeing, and a rather less competitive league than has been the case in recent years, with Barça walking away with the title.
Let us examine certain facts that make Villareal's charge all the more remarkable. The town of Castellón from where Villareal hails boasts 47,000 inhabitants, which makes it the second smallest population centre to make the semis, after Monaco (32,000). But there's rather more money floating around the latter place, obviously. And as one journalist writes, when he went up to the hotel clerk at his Castellón hotel (one of only two in the whole city) and asked what was there to do in the town, she very truthfully replied, “nada.”
Villarreal's achievement this year is the most startling in Europe since little Alavés made the UEFA final back in 2000. But this is the Champions League. Villarreal have already put out Everton, Rangers, Manchester United and Inter, just in case anyone thought they'd had an easy passage.
Of the Spanish sides who have already been at this stage, there are no surprises. Real Madrid (21 times), Barcelona (8), Atlético Madrid (3), Valencia (2), Deportivo (2) and Real Sociedad (1). Of that list, although Deportivo hail from a much larger population centre than Villarreal, they have also spent much of the 20th century in relative obscurity.
For those Pink Floyd lovers who have so far been bored with the commentary worrying about the “lost soul” reference here is where I get to it.
As another journalist puts it. Villareal have been a sort of detox centre for players. And the analogy is not desperately out of place. What has set the little Spanish team apart is their ability to spot terrific up and coming prospects and terrific footballers whose stars have temporarily faded and gel them together in a team.
Two perfect examples are none other than a certain Juan Roman Riquelme and another Diego Forlan. In four seasons at Old Trafford Forlan managed 10 league goals, but as soon as he arrived at the Madridgal , he knocked in 25. There were two reasons for this. One was that manager Manuel Pelligrini rated him - and told him so - and the other was as he himself stated Juan Román Riquelme.
The Argentine has been something of an anomaly. Precociously talented and long regarded as a natural heir to Diego Armando Maradona inspite of both playing different roles, Riquelme is a classic playmaker, a rapidly declining breed. When he turned up at the Camp Nou in 2002 from Boca Juniors, he came adorned with rave reviews. He played 30 games that season for Barça, but something wasn't right. Loaned out to Villarreal, he's never looked back. In fact he's probably the best midfielder in the world - which makes it a funny old story. No-one had actually noticed him outside of Spain and Argentina until this season, but they must be kicking themselves now.
Unlike his successor at Barça, Ronaldinho, there are no fireworks with Riquelme. In fact you don't really notice him half the time. Defenders don't either. He floats around the area between the holding player and the forwards, and represents an absolute nightmare to the opposing defence. Slow and ponderous looking at times, if you try to tackle him he just ghosts past. If you try to mark him he drops off so deep that the man-marker gets bored. And he never loses the ball. It seems to be uncannily stuck to his boot. Then when a forward makes a run into space he always finds them. His passing is deadly accurate and his vision unparalleled.
Other players who have found solace in the monastery that seems to be Villareal are Jose Mari and Argentina captain Juan Pablo Sorin. Jose Mari, once hailed as the great Spanish hope disappeared after a transfer to Milan but has come back vociferously. Sorin had also been something of a nomad moving from one club to another. But it is at Villareal that he seems to have found his true calling.
So there you have it. Villareal, the figurative fishbowl truly a place for lost souls.
And if you were wondering about the Beatles reference, Villareal are nicknamed “ The Yellow Submarine.”
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