The 31-year-old midfielder turned down interest from Arsenal and Real Madrid to go on to make history by becoming Villarreal’s record appearance holder. Now captain Bruno Soriano is leading his boyhood heroes towards Champions League qualification and Europa League glory.
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At the age of 16 Bruno Soriano left football behind him – he didn’t feel he was good enough to play for his Villarreal, and if he couldn’t play for Villarreal, he didn’t want to play at all.
Fast forward 15 years, and on Sunday night Bruno Soriano became the player to make the most appearances in their history: 364 of them, to be precise. It’s the only club he’s ever played for and it’s the only team he has ever wanted to play for.
When he left the club at 16 he went back to Artana, the small village where he had grown up, and a 15-minute drive from Villarreal. He started working in the local mine, and among his friends felt like just another teenager. Occasionally, he played football on a gravel pitch with a local amateur team, but that was it.
Villarreal hadn’t forgotten about the talented boy that once played in the club’s youth teams, however, and one person who certainly hadn’t forgotten him was the then-B team coach Juan Carlos Garrido. After some searching, Garrido found Bruno; and after several hours of talking, he finally convinced the kid to return to the youth ranks. By that time, Bruno had turned 18 and had been out of organised football for two long years, but he would soon find his way again.
No player has ever represented Villarreal the way Bruno does. He is an emblem of the club’s identity; he embodies it. There are not a lot of Bruno Sorianos out there, players who care more about the team they play for than the trophies they win. He could have left many times. He had the chance, and in the position he was in, most would have done so. Yet the one time he did leave, he decided to leave it all because if it couldn’t be Villarreal it couldn’t be anyone.
After reaching an historic second place in La Liga during his first season at El Madrigal in 2006-07, and then carrying his team to a Champions League quarter-final the following year, Bruno was given his national team debut for Spain.
But two years later, when Villarreal got regulated from La Liga, the captain was left with an ultimatum from the Spain coach Vicente del Bosque. If he wanted to continue playing for Spain, he had to change club. Even though there were good offers on the table, for Bruno, that was never an option.
Nearly everyone else left, but Bruno stayed. In the Spanish second division the Villarreal captain was forced to help build a completely new team consisting mostly of players from the club’s youth teams – and they did so impeccably. They got back to La Liga, and in their first season back made a statement, ending seventh in the league table and heading out to Europe once more.
For a team from a city of only 50,000 inhabitants, just playing in La Liga at all should be a big feat. But since Bruno entered the picture everyone has become used to seeing the Yellow Submarine not only as a top-flight club, but as a European contender as well. This season is no different.
As is often the case for the teams just under the big three in Spain, Villarreal have grown used to losing their best and most prominent players each season. This summer Luciano Vietto and Giovani dos Santos said their farewells. But what Villarreal are also used to is finding the right talent to replace those departing.
Denis Suarez, Samu Castillejo and Eric Bailly, to name but three, are players you will be hearing a lot of in the future. This season, together with veterans like Roberto Soldado, Adrián López and Bruno, they have thrilled La Liga and provided some of its most enjoyable football.
After reaching the Champions League during his first season with the first team, Bruno is now looking to take things full circle. Eight years later, after a stint in the second division, they are truly on their way back to Europe’s biggest football competition.
There might be 12 points between them and third-placed Real Madrid, but Villarreal also have an eight-point gap to fifth-placed Celta de Vigo. With only seven rounds left to play, the Yellow Submarine seem to have that final Champions League qualifying spot well and truly in their grasp.
At the same time they are going strong in the Europa League, having reached the quarter-finals where they will take on Sparta Prague on Thursday; a meeting Villarreal are expected to win. Reaching a Europa League final and winning a major title for the first time in club’s history does not feel far-fetched or far away. None of the clubs remaining in the competition have played better football than Villarreal this season. Winning that trophy would also provide a Champions League spot, meaning that they have two possible routes into Europe’s premier competition for next season.
But just winning the Europa League might be more important than getting back in the Champions League again, at least, for Bruno. He has stated many times that his biggest dream isn’t to win a World Cup or a Champions League trophy, but just to win silverware at all with his Villarreal.
At 31, time is running out, and this might just be it. This season might be the one he always dreamed of. No one has played more games for Villarreal than him, no one symbolises the club like he does, and few players if any deserve to win a trophy for his club as much as Bruno deserves to win one for Villarreal.