When the La Liga fixtures for the 2015/16 season were released the entirety of my school football team were praying that our trip to Valencia would fall on the weekend that Barcelona or Real Madrid paid their annual visit to the Mestalla. So, I think it would be fair to say that when we discovered this was not to be the case, and that instead we would be taking in relegation fodder Levante’s clash against regional rivals Villarreal, the disappointment in the air was palpable. How ignorant of us.
I was aware that Villarreal had faced Celtic in European competition a few times over the years, and that they now shared a certain affinity with the club. That was also about as far as my knowledge of ‘The Yellow Submarine’ went. It’s safe to say that when I put on the Hoops and made for the Estadio Ciudad del Valencia I didn’t expect the reaction that followed.
The atmosphere outside the ground before kick-off was friendly, with rival fans coexisting peacefully in a scene bereft of any violence or segregation- I suppose our rivalry with Rangers gave me an unrealistic perception of what derby games ought to be like. What first was a serene walk from the bus to the turnstiles became surreal once we turned the corner and came across the area where most of the Villareal fans were congregated, as a sea of yellow engulfed a bar outside the ground. Initially I thought nothing of it as a single Villareal fan swaggered past me, pointed at the four-leaf clover on my chest and chanted “Samaras, Samaras, Samaras”. Though the deeper into the crowd I went the more fans took notice of the fact I was wearing the hoops. Many would simply catch a glimmer of my jersey and give a friendly nod, whilst others reacted more jovially, with pockets of the travelling fans chanting “Celtic” as I passed, and furthermore what I assumed would be a solitary chant for the Greek God “Samaras” earlier on, was to be followed with many more, leaving my team mates and teachers suitably bewildered as they realised that the Samaras cult had made its way to Eastern Spain.
Inside the ground our seats were located in the home end, though only a stairwell away from the away support which was littered with Celtic shirts. On another day, this would have surprised me, though after hearing many Spanish men chant about the bold Georgios Samaras nothing would ever shock me again. After the game I, along with some other Celtic fans on the trip, walked over to the away end to meet some of the Villarreal fans who were still reacting affectionately to my top and speaking of their love for Celtic.
I went away from that game with a Villareal scarf I’d profited around my neck, and a new-found affection for this charming Spanish club. Although the game on the park was dreadful, with plucky Levante squeezing 10-man Villareal out by a goal to nil, this was one of the most memorable football experiences I’ve had and opened my eyes to the friendships we’ve made as a support.
As Celtic fans, we pride ourselves on our unparalleled support and backing of the team, which is renowned the world over, making us friends wherever we go. What I saw that day in Valencia was a genuine warmth for Celtic, from as friendly a support as you are likely to meet, and it left me fascinated as to what why this was the case. The story turned out to be heart-breaking and uplifting at the same time.
Back in April 2004, just under a year after the celebration of Celtic in Seville, the club were drawn against Villarreal in the quarter finals of the UEFA Cup. Fresh from eliminating Barcelona in a valiant effort the round before, Celtic faced Villareal full of confidence, with fans already debating who they would prefer to face in the semi-finals. After a 1-1 draw at Celtic Park, 8,000 fans in green and white descended on Vila-Real, a city the size of Cumbernauld, and although they would crash out of the tournament after a 2-0 loss, the Celtic supporters would leave a lasting impression one man in particular.
In contrast to the jubilant atmosphere in the city, former Villareal player Ernesto Boixander was in a state of mourning following the tragic death of his son to a Cerebral Tumour just fifteen days before Villareal welcomed Celtic to El Madrigal. In the six years that Ernesto’s son had this heart-breaking illness he had stopped going to the football and lost interest in his once beloved Villareal.
As Ernesto made his way back to his car after work he heard a tremendous noise nearby and went to check it out, only to find Celtic and Villareal fans singing and dancing with each other in the streets. It is said that this incredible scene gave Ernesto an irresistible urge to return to El Madrigal. Accounts of that night say that the Villareal fans stood aside and applauded the Celtic fans as they walked down the street singing songs and swapping scarves and flags with the awestruck Villareal supporters.
After such a devastating period of his life, the Celtic fans brought a smile back to Ernesto’s face, and inspired him to set up the renowned Celtic Submari CSC in memory of his son. To this day the Celtic Submari CSC is still going strong and binding supporters of Celtic and Villareal together, promoting the shared charitable ethos of both clubs.
Since that game in 2004, Celtic and Villareal faced each other again in the 2008 Champions League group stage, as well as in 2014 for a charity match. The match that day was bravely kicked off by 13-year-old cancer sufferer Gohan, and although Villareal ran out 4-2 victors on the night, charity was the real winner as all funds raised from the game were donated to a project set up to help children who, like Gohan, suffer from the evils of cancer.
The bond between Celtic and Villareal is undoubtedly about more than just football. As a Celtic fan, I am far prouder that the good nature of our supporters in 2004 helped Ernesto in his time of need and inspired a relationship that unites both of our clubs through football and charity, than I would have been had we won the game but failed to act in such a commendable manner. Long may the special bond between Celtic and Villareal continue. The story of this friendship is what being a football fan is all about.