Rulli must eclipse Bayern’s Neuer to make Champions League history for Villarreal
They were born 12,000 kilometers away and six years apart; in very different cultures, languages and educations; with huge disparities physically and in terms of trophies won. At first glance, there isn’t much to unite Villarreal’s Geronimo Rulli and Bayern Munich’s Manuel Neuer. Except that they have both chosen, or are predestined, for this most solitary profession: that of goalkeeper. And if either of them produce a mega-performance on Tuesday at the Allianz Arena, there’s a much bigger possibility that they’ll seal a place in the Champions League semi-finals (against Liverpool, you can bet .)
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Neuer: son of a cop, born prominently from Schalke’s former Parkstadion in Gelsenkirchen, voice actor for a Disney movie character, half-million-dollar charity winner on the German version of “Who wants to make millions?” and one of the leaders in the dispute over who was the greatest goalkeeper of all time.
Rulli: Juan Veron’s Estudiantes ball boy as a child in Argentina, spending seven years without the clubs he was registered with – Estudiantes, Real Sociedad, Manchester City and Montpellier – fully owning his economic rights thanks to an investment of $4 million in him from a venture capital fund in 2014, and admired at San Sebastian for the loving role he played in a young Real Sociedad fan’s cancer battle during his fight until remission. Without a trophy for most of his time in Spain, Rulli could walk the streets almost anywhere except San Sebastian, Villarreal or his hometown of La Plata in Argentina and go unnoticed.
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To put meat to the bones of this initially clear mismatch: Neuer is a World Cup winner, Champions League winner, has won 30 senior trophies for club and country, and is the only goalkeeper in the history of winning the treble twice.
Rulli? Well, the 29-year-old Argentinian is in this transcendent moment, for himself and for his club, partly because he saved a penalty from his Manchester United counterpart David de Gea last season in Poland when he won the only medal of his senior career via a penalty shootout 11-10 in the Europa League final.
In terms of silverware, the score is Neuer 30-1 Rulli. And, while it’s not the score line on Tuesday, anyone with a coherent understanding of European football will have failed to notice that when Bayern go wild, it’s usually the opposing keeper who suffers. Remember Bayern 8-2 Barcelona in 2020? Bayern 4-0 Atlético Madrid the following season? And the magnificent 7-1 thrashing the Bavarians inflicted on FC Salzburg in the final round after Matthias Jaissle’s side let Bayern off the hook in Austria after a 1-1 first-leg draw?
Rulli, if nothing else, is a student of detail. He will have watched these matches – and many others – calculating percentages, working on angles. Trying to turn a historic win (many at Villarreal think last week’s 1-0 was pound-for-pound more remarkable than beating Manchester United last May) into a defining night in the club’s history. His task is to be aware, but not intimidated, of the damage that Robert Lewandowski, Thomas Muller, Leroy Sane, et al, can inflict when awake.
Villarreal’s Geronimo Rulli has been one of the club’s star players. Getty
Twenty-five years ago, next month, Villarreal was bought for around €400,000 by a ceramics magnate called Fernando Roig. At this time they had no training ground – daily work had to be undertaken on school playgrounds, a public park or, on rare occasions, the match surface at El Madrigal. And, speaking of their El Madrigal stadium, it was a dump. A capacity of around 2,500, a roof over the only grandstand (stand) and no offices where the deal to sell the club could be done.
A professional football club more detached from FC Bayern is hard to imagine. In fact, Neuer has been in the top flight for almost as long as Villarreal.
I spoke to Roig a few days before the win over Bayern and asked him what would be the guiding phrase, if there was one, for the last quarter century of Villarreal’s increasingly remarkable exploits. “Dreaming,” he told me. “Well, dream and work hard.”
Look where that got them. The city with the smallest population to have won a UEFA trophy (50,000); historic victories against Bayern, United, Inter, Arsenal, Madrid, Barcelona and Juventus now on their CV; a nice stadium and world class footballers proud to have been on the Yellow Submarine crew list. Dreams come true.
So it’s for Rulli. Tired of always being called Argentina’s ‘custodian of the future’, as he explained a few seasons ago, unsure of where to live, deeply troubled by depression in The Realobsessed with the idea of becoming number one in his country, he never stopped dreaming or working.
play0:51Alfonso Pedraza goal 60th minute Villarreal 1-1 Athletic Bilbao
Alfonso Pedraza goal 60th minute Villarreal 1-1 Athletic Bilbao
Things were at their worst a few years ago at Real Sociedad. Prone to mistakes, struggling for professional recognition and personal headspace, he began to find himself seen as irascible, unreliable and he asked himself, “Why?” didn’t like work, was angry with life because the harder he worked, the worse things got.
Then he did two wonderful and unusual things. Unusual, at least, for top-level, extremely well-paid footballers who are often not well educated on how to handle the kind of personal responsibility they often cede to clubs, sales reps – or simply ignore. .
Rulli apologized to his teammates and employers, and he asked for help.
“It wasn’t like I was outright misbehaving,” he later told local Basque Country radio. “I wasn’t always arguing or sulking. But I was working hard, taking care of myself, sleeping well, coming to practice, telling myself to enjoy the experience — so a cloud black would envelop me and I would change.I was furious with myself, embarrassed because I didn’t want my teammates or employers to see me for who I was, rather than who I thought I should be.
“Finally, I went to see the club psychologist [Imanol Ibarrondo] and he helped me because I said, ‘I need your help.’ Things have come into perspective. I apologized to the people around me, explained how I felt – almost everyone was completely surprised. Footballers can have their heads full of nonsense – sometimes we forget how privileged our life is, how much we should enjoy it.”
Other things have changed. The coach for example. As soon as Asier Garitano was withdrawn in the 2018-19 season, Rulli was again chosen first and The Real went to the Bernabeu and beat Real Madrid 2-0.
Rulli and The Real did not become a perfect partner, he needed to change clubs in 2020, from another environment, and needed the confidence of Unai Emery, who promoted him thanks to a superb journey in the Europa League the last season when club legend Sergio Asenjo was nominally the untouchable No.1.
With 16 clean sheets in 37 games this season, Rulli settled in and another Tuesday would seal Villarreal’s historic progression. History teaches us that the Spanish club had, and wasted, their chance last week. They could easily have won 3-0, but they didn’t. There’s usually a hefty bill to pay against the Bayerns of this world for that mistake. But in football, you never know. Maybe Rulli can have another night like he did in Gdansk against United? Despite everything that separates them, maybe he will be able to have his “Neuer moment”? Wouldn’t that be something.