Arsenal are in the Champions League semi-finals for the first time (woo hoo!!), and their next opponent is little-known Villareal. As with George Mason in the NCAA tournament, Villareal's run through the Champions League has been a big surprise. This is the first time they've even been eligible for soccer's biggest club competition, and that understates the magnitude of their achievement:
When Fernando Roig bought a controlling share in Villarreal in May 1997, people thought he was going slightly mad. And when he announced that he was going to make the club first division challengers, they thought he had completely lost it. How times have changed. When he said that Villarreal could win the Champions League on Tuesday night, no one thought him even slightly eccentric.
Villarreal's is the classic rags-to-riches story. When Roig took over, they were struggling at the foot of the second division, with a stadium that held just 3,500, crippling debts and virtually no history. They had never been in the first division and were overshadowed by every other club in the region. Now they have overshadowed virtually every other club in Spain.
"When Roig said we were going to get into the first division, I was scared. I didn't imagine we could get there in my wildest dreams," says José Manuel Llaneza, Villarreal's general manager. As for the Champions League, forget it, let alone the Champions League final. Now they are a single tie away - not bad for a team representing a town of 47,000 inhabitants that does not get a mention in the Rough Guide and boasts a solitary hotel.
The story encapsulates the main reason why I prefer leagues with open structures and no barriers to entry. It also suggests that, although Villareal is clearly an upstart, their current success is not just a flash in the pan. They look to be a formidable foe for Arsenal in the semi-final, and their Spanish counterparts in La Liga for several years at least.
I read another story a few days ago, in which an MLB official congratulated himself by noting the number of teams "in contention" for the playoffs last year on Sept. 1. He went on to state that the league is intent on improving competitive balance, so that 20 teams will be candidates for playoff spots at that date in the future. That's a false sense of competition, in my view. Real competition offers the opportunity for the Portlands, San Antonios, and Villareals to have a go at the top. Here's to Villareal's achievement - hurrah! But that's quite enough for this year, thank you. Go on you Gunners!!