With the team's trajectory currently closer to that of a space shuttle than a submersible, fans of the 'Yellow Submarine' may soon be forced to start thinking of a more suitable nickname. More than a decade has now passed since Villarreal emerged from the depths of Spain's lower divisions with their sights set on conquering La Liga. A measure of just how far the club have come can be seen in the opponents they have faced this season, with Manchester United, Benfica and Lille all gracing El Madrigal as the club embarked on its first UEFA Champions League adventure.
Villarreal is a tiny city of about 40,000 inhabitants situated 60km north of Valencia on Spain's Mediterranean coast. While its economic mainstays - the ceramics and citrus-growing industries - have remained relatively unchanged in recent years, the same cannot be said of its football team. After decades in the shadow of their more illustrious neighbours Valencia, Villarreal are now making waves of their own.
Seven years on the up and up
Although Villarreal were founded back in 1923, the club had never risen higher than division 2B (Spain's third tier) until the 1990s, when they celebrated a historic promotion to the country's second division and laid the foundations for a truly meteoric rise.
Villarreal made their first division debut only seven years ago, famously getting a baptism of fire against Real Madrid at the Bernabéu in their opening game. It was to prove a very tough year for the club, and they would be forced to spend another season in the second division after going straight back down.
In 2001, the Yellow Submarine celebrated their first season back in the top flight with a thoroughly deserved seventh-place finish. Then in the summer of 2003 the club marked a new high with victory over Heerenveen in the final of the UEFA Intertoto Cup, earning them the right to compete in that year's UEFA Cup. Incredibly they went on to reach the last four in their first year in the competition. The team obviously enjoyed the experience because they followed the same route into Europe the following season, although on this occasion bowing out in the quarters.
The 2004/05 season will go down as one of the most illustrious in the club's history. Under the tutelage of Chilean coach Manuel Pellegrini, Villarreal finished third in La Liga and saw their striker Diego Forlán claim the country's top-scorer award and the European Golden Boot. The club's best-ever league finish earned them a berth in the final qualifying round of the UEFA Champions League, which they safely navigated after seeing off English side Everton.
An Iber-American Festival
Fernando Roig's appointment as president in 1997 ushered in a new era at the club. With the help of their excellent scouting network, Villarreal began to attract more and more players of the highest quality, most of whom were of South American origin. First to arrive were Arruabarrena and Martín Palermo, who shared a dressing room with veteran Spaniards like Guillermo Amor, Quique Álvarez, Roger and José Mari.
Very often, though, the club did not have to cross land and sea to find the men they were looking for, instead opting to take on established players who were not enjoying the best of fortune at their existing clubs. In this category were Sonny Anderson and Juan Román Riquelme, who came from Barcelona, Juan Pablo Sorín from PSG, Diego Forlán from Manchester United and Luciano Figueroa from Birmingham City.
The bad luck these players endured at their former clubs seemed to disappear on donning the famous yellow jersey. Back on form, the newcomers proved that they still had it in them to achieve great things and that that their former clubs had been wrong to let them go.
Riquelme, Sorín and Figueroa have not only been demonstrating this in the Spanish league, but also with Argentina. Sorín showed himself to be leader and linchpin of the national team at the recent FIFA Confederations Cup, while Riquelme and Figueroa were the team's top scorers, with 3 and 4 goals respectively.
For his part, Uruguayan international Diego Forlán proved what an astute signing he has been by scoring with impressive regularity. In his first season at the club, the striker netted 25 times to claim La Liga's top-scorer award and the European Golden Boot. The South American further underlined his all-round finishing skills by scoring freely with both feet, 14 with his right, and 10 with his left.
Drawing on the vast experience accumulated during his 18-year-coaching career, Pellegrini has managed to weave these disparate strands into a cohesive and effective unit. A discreet and extremely hard-working individual, the coach continues to be the unifying and driving force behind the club's ambitions, which now extend to reaching the knockout phase of the UEFA Champions League.
Perhaps distracted by their European adventures, Villarreal's early season's form in La Liga lacked their trademark consistency, although they have rallied in recent games and currently lie fifth. This week they travel to Manchester United in their quest for a place in the last-16 of the UEFA Champions League as leaders of Group D.
Influential playmaker Juan Riquelme summed up the determined mood in the camp when he spoke to FIFA.com recently: "We know it's going to be tough as we still have two very difficult games to come. Nonetheless, we're very happy with where we are and could not be more committed to reaching the next stage."
Unfortunately for Villarreal, Riquelme will be taking no part in this crucial game after he strained a muscle in his right thigh in training. Despite the setback, the group remain confident that their overall quality and solidity, allied with an unquenchable spirit, will enable them to get the result they need to keep the Yellow Submarine's European dreams afloat.