On paper, the upset of a regular top-4 side like Villarreal by strugglers languishing near the bottom of the rather unglamorous Spanish second division seems impressive. Real Club Celta de Vigo, from the rapidly growing and impossibly gray industrial city of Vigo, are currently in 14th place in segunda, just 4 points from the drop zone. [let’s not forget that demotion from the 2nd division means wallowing in the entrails of the infamous segunda B, veritable quagmire of further ignominy]
Villarreal are in themselves a curious story. The town they are based in, Vila-Real, barely has 50,000 inhabitants (compare that to Vigo’s population of nearly 500,000). Their stadium, El Madrigal, has a remarkable capacity of 25,000 people. Imagine: if the stadium were to sell out at any time, that would represent 50% of the populace of the town. I could just imagine the Camp Nou filled with 800,000 spectators, whistling at their team for failing to connect 24 passes in a row, or for not signing the latest Dutch successor to Cruyff…
Despite their unlikely size, the team from Vila-real has been a staple in recent European competitions, stopped only by Arsenal in the semifinals and another time in the quarterfinals of the Champions’ League. Some of you might recall Eeyore-like midfielder Juan Roman Riquelme’s infamous penalty miss: the color flushed out of his face and he appeared like he was about to vomit for the entire run-up to the failed spot kick. Had he scored the kick, we might have seen another all-Spanish final pending the outcome of extra time (Arsenal went on to lose to Barcelona).
A big reason for their continued success has been the retention of key players, despite losing some big names to bigger teams. Despite losing Pepe Reina, for example, to Liverpool, they replaced him with a more-than-qualified Diego Lopez, a backup at Real Madrid, and made a handsome profit in the process. Similarly, Diego Forlán’s absence has been readily filled by Giuseppe Rossi, Italian international striker, and Nilmar, a current Brazilian international. This is a team that was able to offload their biggest star ever, Riquelme, who was blacklisted by then-coach Manuel Pellegrini. Perhaps their biggest blow was losing their Chilean coach to Real Madrid; this season started horribly for them, as they adjusted to the coaching change. Since then, going into the winter break, the team has reorganized under Ernesto Valverde, and the proof was in their impressive 1-1 draw with Barcelona just over a week ago.
Celta, on the other hand, had a much more illustrious past in the Primera (I refuse to use the improperly anglicized “Primera Liga,” the “First League,” because it makes no sense, and is not what the league is called in Spain: la Primera División). The team earned the nickname “Eurocelta” for their exploits in Europe in the early 00’s, knocking out some big teams in the UEFA Cup, while at the same time playing some of the best football in Spain. Big names came and went for Celta as well. Santiago Cañizares once tended goal for Celta. Michel Salgado was the hometown boy before also being snapped up by Real Madrid. The great Claude Makelele made his name playing in Vigo (not to mention wrecked his first Ferrari there). [on a side note, this brings us to the growing issue of major stars wrecking Ferraris and other overpriced sports cars. Cristiano Ronaldo, Rio Ferdinand, Karim Benzema (TWICE now!)]
In contrast to Villarreal, we can’t say that Celta were wise about replacing players in a profitable fashion. The team, overextended in European competition and at home, was finally broken by a lack of top-class players and a relatively successful yet taxing Champions’ League campaign and went down to Segunda that same season. And things haven’t looked much better since. Likewise, the city of Vigo worries about its industrial bases. The fishing industry, Vigo’s biggest, looks tired amidst worries about overfishing, dwindling fish stocks, higher oil prices; the car industry [Citröen sponsor Celta and have one of Europe’s largest factories in Vigo] is equally important and imperiled.
With all the talk of the financial crisis, we can think about the idea of the club being a bad business; Soccernomics, a recent book by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski, discusses this issue in detail, raising questions about just why people continue to invest in this money pit of a sport. Owners are a beleaguered bunch, they emphasize, and considering the heavy crisis already being felt by many small team owners, debt-ridden and struggling to make a profit, things have gotten worse for even big teams in European leagues. A recent Guardian article points out that a team like Manchester United is disastrous on many levels, with dubious administration and massive debts that look like they might go unpaid.
For the small team, one explanation is provided as to why people continue to invest in soccer: it is a cultural institution that provides thrills and joy, heartbreak and defeat. Celta beating Villarreal won’t turn the tides of minnows struggling against the current of the global marketplace; such a victory does, however, vindicate the idea that “anybody” can win, though we shall see how far this fairy tale goes for the celestes in 2010. As I consider them my hometown club, having witnessed the glorious “EuroCelta” years, a part of me wants to not be deceived by false hope!