May 15, 1997.
A wave of chance sweeps Vila-real.
The team of Villarreal and the town of Vila-real were little more than just another name on the list of many teams and towns that made up the Spanish Second Division. A charming team in a small town that every now and again made the news, if only casually. A well-played Spanish Cup leg against a First Division team. An anecdotal temporary first place in the Second Division. A player who looked good, to be inevitably poached in the summer by a better team, one higher-up in the ladder.
Villarreal’s club profile looked vastly different than the what one can see now:
– Ticket holders: Approximately 3,000–roughly a seventh of 2021
– Club annual budget: 2 million Euro, about 2% of the current one
– Club valuation: Roughly 400,000 Euros. The club is now worth over 200 million.
The stadium was not La Ceramica; it was El Madrigal. The training facilities of Miralcamp and Pamesa, both based in Vila-real, flat out did not exist. When it rained, there was a need to find a pitch to train on, anywhere possible, ideally with a roof over it.
Pascual Font de Mora gave everything for this club, and in his infinite wisdom, realized new blood was needed–but the right kind. In stepping down, he went on a search for a leader who would care, who would put his own ambition, and sweat equity, into the club.
That idea did not come to fruition right away, though. The truth is, a television network almost took ownership of the club. Grupo Zeta, a group that owned the national network Antena 3, was interested. Talks were advanced. Font de Mora was reluctanct to sell, as the group was not based in Vila-real, and it was important for the president and others to have an owner with a local presence.
Eventually, Grupo Zeta backed out of the offer, and left Villarreal in a situation where they had to restart the search to find the right person. Back to square one.
It was Christmas, 1996.
Through the months that followed, club man Jose Manuel Llaneza took notice of a businessman who lived in the same town he lived; a man with ownership experience in other sports, like basketball. He was the president of Pamesa Valencia in those times.
Fernando Roig was a man from a family with resources; a soccer family, too. His brother had just resigned the presidency of Valencia, one of two eternal rivals, but who in the 90s was nothing more than an annoying cousin Villarreal was jealous of.
Fernando Roig welcomed the conversation. As he said years later, “I did not choose Villarreal. Villarreal signed me.”
A few months later, the businessman sat next to Pascual Font de Mora, and at a press conference at local restaurant Avenida 41, made the announcement: Roig was the new president.
The amount? A little over 400,000 Euros, or 70 million “Pesetas,” Spain’s old currency, for exactly 78% of the stock of the club.
Rivers of ink followed from the local press. What were Roig’s intentions with the club? Did he understand the long-term goals of the club? Was he willing to put his money where his mouth was and invest in the team?
Roig showed his intentions from day one. In the press conference, he stated he was “here not to create a boys’ club or steamroll other people in the organization.” He was there to “spend money in Villarreal Club de Futbol.”
Even though the initial response from the locals was mostly positive, Roig still had an important side to convince: the passionate, committed, vocal supporter groups, or “penyes,” from the region. They were not so sure about the new owner.
Roig knew he needed to talk directly and openly to them, take the temperature in the room, and make sure that the supporter groups accepted his purchasing of the club. He put together a meeting with the main groups, and made his intentions, once again, clear as water: “I want to promote this club to the First Division within the next two seasons.”
A lot of those groups were excited about Roig’s ambition, but also thought he was crazy. A team that had never been promoted could do so in two years, with a more than modest budget in the 90s, back when La Liga was without question becoming the top league in the continent, promoted?
Roig was wrong. The team would not be promoted in its second season.
He did it in one year.
Roig’s ambition soaked through the town: over 5,000 supporters signed up for a season pass, and higher-caliber players joined the Yellow Submarine. Andres Palop, on loan from Valencia; Thomas Christiansen, ex-Barcelona and a Spanish international; Alberto Saavedra and others ended up in Vila-real and under the management of Jose Antonio Irulegui, who remained in the bench from the previous season. The team managed the impossible and got promoted after a magical night in Compostela.
Llaneza, years later, admitted that “Without Roig, Villarreal would not be in the First Division.” Andres Palop, the very first La Liga star goalkeeper in Villarreal, remembers how committed the president always was. “From day one, his ambition was contagious. He was always looking out for us, too. If it rained, he would be the first one to go out and find us a place to train indoors until the training facilities were built. He always had advice for us.”
His eye for business and his love for soccer married in Vila-real, and created a partnership that lasts to this day. Roig knows he is human, and understands making mistakes is part of being a leader. “A good club owner is one who makes good decisions most of the time, and when he makes a bad decision, is able to look back and learn from it.”
He also understands that as an owner, it is good when local competition does well, too. In a local interview in 2007, he spoke of the “Importance for local teams around Villarreal to be as high-up in the ladder as possible. The better Castellon, Valencia, Villarreal are doing, the better for the Valencian Community at large.”
In his 24 years in charge, players, staff and fans have spoken on endless occasions about the impact Fernando Roig had in Villarreal. He both exemplifies the passion and ambition of a local club to do well, but do well by doing the right things. Players took notice, and after key players in the first La Liga season like Victor Fernandez, Gica Craioveanu or Andres Palop himself, others followed.
Marcos Senna, the club’s current ambassador, is probably the biggest advocate for what good management can do to weigh in on a player’s decision to sign. “Llaneza came to Brazil, and convinced me to sign. I met Roig for the first time at my presentation in Vila-real. He was very warm, always joking and talkative. He was one of us.”
“They have treated me so well,” stated the Spanish-Brazilian ex-player to Mediterraneo a few years back. “In Brazil, it would be impossible for me to have a gate named after me. That gesture is forever.”
“Everything he has planned, he has achieved,”
What he planned, and his impact in Villarreal is not up for debate: Three promotions. A second place finish in La Liga. A remodeled stadium, La Ceramica, with capacity for over 23,000 fans. Five European semifinals, including the famous Champions League battle against Arsenal in 2006. Two brand new, top of the line training facilities.
The beautification of the neighborhood surrounding La Ceramica, and the construction of a square next to the stadium in honor of Pascual Font de Mora. In the plans, a high-standing restaurant inside of La Ceramica, and a museum about the history of the club.
As Roig himself puts it, “It is nice to look back, but the important thing is to look at the next 20 years. They will be better, and more important, than what is behind us.”
Immediately in front of him, in that trajectory, is a final. The final he has been looking for since May 15, 1997. And a European final, no less. Regardless of what happens on May 26 in Gdansk, Poland, Roig’s intentions are to keep going. To ask for more, but to be the first leading on that by example.
If previous behavior is an indicator of what’s to come for Villarreal after this final, all we need to do is look back at his comments after his first relegation from La Liga, and his intentions to come back again, as soon as possible. After Roig gets to a landmark for the club, he moves the goalpost and asks for more.
“When one has tried Jamon Iberico, the Serrano one tastes dull.”
Sources: Villarrealnews.com, Onda Cero, Mediterraneo