United threatened by small-town team with a voracious appetite for the big time

Villarreal, who play at Old Trafford tonight, used to get crowds of 150 before their remarkable rise. Andy Mitten reports
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There are superficial similarities between the Glazers and the Roig family, one of whom is the president of tonight's visitors to Old Trafford, Villarreal. Like the Americans, Fernando Roig is one of three brothers involved in the business of sport. His father was a Valencia director, brother Paco a Valencia president who now promises to take Second Division Hercules of Alicante into Europe. The third brother is the president at Pamesa Valencia, an established name in Spain's second most popular sport, basketball. The Roigs may share the Glazers' media aversion, but the trio are motivated by a completely different philosophy.

"I do not want to gain money from sport, but to give something which is important to the community," says Fernando Roig, 58. "My wife does not understand it, but I am serious about my convictions." Given Villarreal's current rise , few doubt him. When Manchester United won the European Cup Winners' Cup in 1991, Villarreal played in a regional league whose average attendance was 150 - the norm for a town of 46,000.

Then Roig became president and began spending his ceramics fortune on footballers' salaries. The "yellow submarines" rose quickly, perhaps too quickly given that crowds averaged just 3,000 when they reached the top flight in 1998-99, the season that United won the treble. Villarreal were subsequently relegated but returned immediately in 2000-01 and have established themselves as La Liga mainstays. In Europe, they won the Intertoto Cup in 2003 and have reached the semi-finals of the Uefa Cup in each of the past two seasons before qualifying for the Champions' League for the first time this season.

Villarreal's strategy works. They specialise in snaring still youthful fading stars to the club, hopefully to reignite their careers. Players like Juan Roman Riquelme, Boca Juniors' slow but inventive playmaker who looked washed up after a season at Baria. Compared with Eric Cantona by Sir Alex Ferguson, his absence through injury tonight caused relief in Manchester. Another former Baria player is Juan Pablo Sorin, who recently captained Argentina.

Villarreal go for pedigree, usually fringe players from big clubs - someone who has had the talent to get to join a Baria or Milan and has been coached and motivated by the best. Diego Forlan, purchased for £1.5m in August 2004, less than two years after Manchester United paid £7.5m for him, is a classic Villarreal signing, although injury has also ruled him out of an Old Trafford return.

There have been mistakes. The striker Martin Palermo arrived from Boca Juniors having been anointed by Diego Maradona as a leading light in Argentinian football, but struggled with injuries, including a broken leg suffered after a wall collapsed under the weight of Villarreal's fans following a goal. Those crowds now average 17,000 in their 23,000-capacity sunbleached El Madrigal home.

Some questioned why Forlan and Palermo joined a club they'd barely heard of, but Villarreal has a good reputation on the players' grapevine. Only Barcelona and Madrid play better football in Spain, and like the big two, Villarreal pay substantial wages. They pay on time too, not something players take for granted in Spain. Forlan enjoys a healthy increase on his Old Trafford salary and now lives by the beach, without the pressure of being famous in a football obsessed city, because the nearest is Valencia, 50 miles south along the Mediterranean coast.

One reason Villarreal pay so generously is because they save on large transfer fees. They acquired cheaply the likes of Italian midfielder Alessio Tacchinardi, who was warming the Juventus bench last season. The striker Jose Mari was similarly occupied at Milan. Not all of their squad were part of Europe's f ootballing élite, though: Forlan's usual strike partner Luciano Figueroa played one Premiership game for Birmingham City in 2003-04.

Roig has also earned good money for his club on the transfer market. Goalkeeper Jose Reina was brought in from the fringes of Barcelona's first team and went to Liverpool for £6m. The right-back Belletti was sold to Baria for a profit and bigger clubs are eyeing Riquelme. Roig has made it his priority to keep him, but his ethos is the antithesis of Real Madrid's galactico policy. Big egos are as welcome as bruised oranges in his part of the world.

Roig prefers to operate behind the scenes. He flew to Manchester and signed Forlan in one meeting whereas the presidents of some Spanish clubs revel in their own notoriety. The urbane Spaniard believes Villarreal's football is the best advert for his club.

United are lacking a player like Villarreal's Brazilian defensive midfielder Marcus Senna, a tidy tackler and distributor, who allows Riquelme to exploit opponents. The Argentinian appears to have a near telepathic understanding with Forlan - the 25-goal top scorer in Spain last season ahead of more esteemed names like Ronaldo, Eto'o and Ronaldinho.

Forlan is one of many South Americans in Villarreal's dressing-room. " You get far better value from South Americans for the quality they give you," says Roig. "They have a mentality I admire." Cerebral head coach Manuel Pellegrini is from Chile, although he frequently looks to Europe for inspiration. In 1988, he attended an FA coaching course at Lilleshall given by one Alex Ferguson.

Deportivo La Coruña achieved success with a similar blend of South Americans and Spaniards, introducing players like Rivaldo to Europe. Forlan has cited Deportivo as Villarreal's role model, but Roig is more circumspect: " There are comparisons, but we believe in a system of developing young players. That's why we have built one of the best training facilities in Spain. It's important to work within a budget too, with sound business principles."

There are not too many other distractions for the players. Pellegrini calls Villarreal a village and in almost 1,500 pages neither the Rough Guide or Lonely Planet guides to Spain give it a single word - as fans of Boro, Everton and Manchester United have discovered in the past year.

We will hear much more of Villarreal if Roig is to be believed: "We aspire not just to play in the Champions' League, but to win it." Pellegrini's side go into tonight's Group D game leading Lille and United by a point. If they are still in that position at the final whistle then Roig's statement won't look quite so optimistic.

Does size matter? Other minnows making an impact


The French club managed by Jacques Santini hail from a town with a population of just 38,000 and have produced players such as Philippe Mexes, Eric Cantona and Djibril Cissé. The maximum they have paid for a player is £1m, on Luigi Pieroni from Mouscron in Belgium.


The club from a town with a population of 41,000 were amateurs in the Swiss Third Division nine years ago, playing in front of crowds of around 100. Their annual budget totals around £2.5m and their stadium holds only 10,300, a severe limitation to their ticket revenue.


The northern Italian club come from a town with a population of 96,500 and have only been back in Serie A for 10 years after living in the shadow of Milan and Juventus. With massive fees shelled out in the Italian league, Udinese's highest fee is a comparably small £8.5m.