Tlui greatest victory of all belonged to everyone, a whole team effort. So often said, this time it was true. Gerard Moreno, Dani Raba, Paco Alcácer, Alberto Moreno, Dani Parejo, Moi Gómez, Raúl Albiol, Francis Coquelin, Mario Gaspar, Pau Torres, Gerónimo Rulli: by the time Villarreal had won their first trophy every player on the pitch had scoredand it wasn’t just them either. It was everything and everyone; a town of 50,577, the smallest to have a European title and, poi, at the end of it all a single man standing there alone, trying not to think about it.
Dopo 98 years of history, 24 years under the men who changed the club for good, 21 seasons in the top flight, 14 years in Europe and four semi-finals at which they fell, always halted at the gate; dopo 120 minuti, two goals and 20 penalties, every one put away, it came down to this. To their goalkeeper. Their second-choice goalkeeper.
Rulli has been given the opportunity in Europe and was maintained against Manchester United despite doubts as to whether, having taken Villarreal to a place they had never been, Unai Emery would turn to Sergio Asenjo instead. Adesso, late on Wednesday, he had one shot to make history. Bene, two: the one he would take and the one he would face. Twenty outfield players had scored, leaving Rulli and David de Gea, fate in their hands and at their feet.
“I had never taken a penalty before,” Rulli said. “I was annoyed because I had got my hand to the three or four of the penalties but not saved any of them. And I could see my family in the stand behind the goal.
“I didn’t really think; it would be worse to think. I would just give it everything I had. I was just thinking, ‘Just go in, just go in’ and it went in.”
Rulli smashed it as if taking a goalkick, the ball rising hard into the top-left corner. “I was getting ready to take another one,” Moreno said, thinking it was time to go back round. He had scored the opening goal of the match, the opening goal of the shootout and now he was going to have to do it again. Manu Trigueros though had other ideas and it turned out he was right. When Rulli saved, Trigueros turned to a teammate and said: “It’s over.”
E, so at last, it was. De Gea’s penalty went to Rulli’s left and everyone went wild, the goalkeeper diving to save. Suddenly there was yellow everywhere, although as Marca’s nice front page put it: “It’s not yellow, it’s gold.
They had done it and like this. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” Parejo said. Albiol said: “The last time I took a penalty was in infantil, the under-13s.” This was the second time he had won the Uefa Cup. He last time was 17 anni fa.
Moreno’s teammates were about to find out how much that chunk of iron weighs and he was right, they were losing their heads. He would have been happy just to watch this final from the bench, to make a bad year a great one; instead, he had come on to play a key part.
There were lovely stories everywhere, redemption and vindication. Gaspar, the captain who has played more games for the club than anyone else, coming on and lifting the trophy. Foyth, war wounded. Parejo and Coquelin, sold by Valencia and celebrating. Trigueros, the qualified teacher with another story to tell his class. Yeremi Pino, the youngest Spaniard to win a European trophy. Gerard Moreno marking his goal with a “get vaccinated” gesture.
And there wasTorres, the kid who had joined Villarreal at the age of five and whom United now want, the kid from the town of Vila-real who was in the stands crying when Juan Román Riquelme had his penalty saved in 2006 in the Champions League semi-final against Arsenal. Before the game, Emery had urged them to do it for “Pau’s town” and now they had.
For the whole of Spain, perhaps. After the semi-final, Roig had described European football as three Englishmen and one little Spaniard still standing and that was a theme to which many of them returned. “We’re Spain’s team a bit now,” said José Manuel Llaneza, who for so many years ran the club. At a time of doubts, a concern that the Premier league is eclipsing them, there will be five La Liga teams in the Champions League next season.
Asked what the secret was, Unai Emery, who had stepped on to the podium, shaken hands with Alex Ferguson and collected his fourth Europa League winners’ medal, disse: “We watched 17 Manchester United games. It’s work, that’s all it is.”
They hadn’t practised penalties though. And if they had, it’s not as though they would have got all the way down to Rulli. Emery recalled a player at Almería, the first top-flight club he coached, missing in a friendly despite endless practice. “Penalties are not a lottery but they are the moment," Egli ha detto. “And the players were fabulous.”
“Now what?” he was asked. “Celebrate," Egli ha detto. “You have to know how to enjoy it too.”
“There are no words for this,” Parejo said. “My family will be watching me on television,". Others had made it to Gdansk. A little more than 2,000 fans were there. For the past year they have been at the Cerámica stadium only in cardboard form, a ground full of cutouts.
In the directors’ box, Marcos Senna, the club’s former player who is now their ambassador, had almost lost his voice. “Qué fuerte! Qué fuerte!” he kept saying, which was almost all he could say, smiling in disbelief, shaking his head. Incredible!
Senna had waited a long time for this and it was about his generation as well, the men who had made this club what it is. Llaneza, the managing director who oversaw the sale in 1997 and then led them into a new era, could hardly believe it. “We like to suffer, eh," Egli ha detto. “So many things go through your head. I’d like to send an embrace to everyone in hospital everywhere.”
Bruno Soriano, the former captain was there. And Santi Cazorla, who played for the club in three spells. This, they agreed, was a thorn finally removed from their side. Riquelme was watching on television in Argentina. Now penalties, another Argentinian, had taken them to victory. “I want to send him a hug,” Rulli said. “This has taken a weight off Román’s back,” Senna managed to say.
One person who wasn’t there was the man who most should have been: Fernando Roig, the president who bought Villarreal in 1997 and built this. He had tested positive for Covid a fortnight ago after having the first dose of the vaccine. He was negative again, two PCRs proving it, and had been allowed to land in Poland. He had been at the final training session the night before, but on Wednesday Uefa’s medical committee said that he did not fulfil the criteria and turned him away. “I don’t understand it," Egli ha detto.
“He should have been here, the poor thing,” Albiol said. The first call Roig took was from his son, the Villarreal CEO, on the pitch at full-time. “We’ll get back and give you a hug,” Senna said looking down the screen.
From his home, Roig spoke to the television channel he had watched the game on. “How was it?” he was asked. “Terrifying,” he replied. “I had to come back. It was the team that had to play, not me.
“Tonight it is 23 years and two days since our first promotion to the first division and I am very, very happy. When they get back to the airport at three or four in the morning, I’ll be there waiting for them.”