Today’s Europa League final featured two contrasting teams: Manchester United and Villareal. Man U, which represents the red half of a city of about half a million, has won everything there is to win in soccer, and most things multiple times. Villareal, known for some reason as the Yellow Submarine, represents a Spanish city of around 50,000. Until today, it had never won anything.
This year, Man U finished second in the English Premier League. Villareal, which played three EPL castoffs today, finished seventh in La Liga.
And here’s one more contrast. Just before the opening whistle, the Man U players all knelt, in conformance with what EPL teams have been doing since George Floyd’s death in Minnesota. The Villareal players, a collection of mostly Spanish players with a few Frenchmen and South Americans mixed in, declined to kneel.
Why, the Villareal players must have wondered, should they kneel because an American cop severely mistreated a black American criminal? Indeed, why should they kneel for any reason?
Perhaps a Man U player or two has wondered the same thing. Perhaps not. The EPL does not appear to be awash with independent thinkers.
As for the match, Manchester United dominated possession, as expected. And, as expected, Villareal defended stoutly.
The result was 120 minutes of undistinguished football, resulting in a 1-1 draw. Consequently, the match went to a penalty kick shootout.
The shootout produced something I’ve never seen before. All 20 outfield players converted their penalty kick.
This meant that the goalkeepers had to take the 11th penalty kick for their respective teams.
Gerónimo Rulli, the Villareal goalkeeper (and normally a backup), converted his kick with aplomb. He then saved the kick of Manchester United’s keeper, the Spaniard David De Gea.
Rulli will never again have to pay for a meal in Villareal. Neither will any of his teammates who played today.
I was delighted by the result. For one thing, Villareal’s victory is a feel-good story.
Then, there’s the fact that Villareal declined to take a knee. Normally, I’ll root for any English team other then Liverpool that’s playing European competition. But if the choice is between kneelers and non-kneelers, I’m going to pull for the latter almost regardless of nationality.
Villareal’s prize for winning is a beautiful trophy, football immortality, and a ticket to next year’s Champions League, an even more prestigious competition.
Man U had already qualified for the Champions League, so they have that consolation. However, this proud club has now gone four years without winning a meaningful trophy. And its fans are up in arms against the American owners who tried to steer United out of the EPL and into a “super league” where Man U wouldn’t have to compete against “minnows” like Villareal.
A win today might have mollified the faithful. But it was not to be.