They were born 12,000 kilometers and six years apart; in vastly different cultures, languages, upbringings; with huge disparities physically and in terms of trophies won. On the face of it there’s not a lot to unite Villarreal’s Geronimo Rulli and Bayern Munich’s Manuel Neuer. Except that they have both chosen, or were predestined for, that loneliest of professions: the goalkeeper. And if one of them produces a mega-performance Tuesday at the Allianz Arena there’s a significantly greater possibility he’ll seal a place in the Champions League semifinal (against Liverpool, you can bet.)
Neuer: son of a cop, born within sight of Schalke’s old Parkstadion in Gelsenkirchen, voice-artist for a Disney film character, winner of half-a-million bucks for charity on the German version of « Who Wants to Be A Millionaire? » and one of the leaders in the argument over who has been the greatest goalkeeper of all time.
Rulli: ball boy to Juan Veron’s Estudiantes as a kid in Argentina, seven years spent without the clubs at which he was registered — Estudiantes, Real Sociedad, Manchester City and Montpellier — fully owning his economic rights because of a $4 million investment in him from a venture capital fund in 2014, and admired in San Sebastian for the loving part he played in the cancer battle of a young Real Sociedad fan during his fight through to remission. Trophy-free for most of his time in Spain, Rulli could walk down the streets almost anywhere except San Sebastian, Villarreal or his hometown of La Plata in Argentina and pass unrecognized.
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To put meat on the bones of this initially clear mismatch: Neuer is a World Cup winner, Champions League winner, has lifted 30 senior trophies for club and country, and is the only keeper in history to win the Treble twice.
Rulli? Well the 29-year-old Argentine is in this transcendental moment, for him and for his club, partly because he saved a penalty from Manchester United counterpart David de Gea last season in Poland when he won the only medal of his senior career via an 11-10 penalty shootout in the Europa League final.
In silverware terms the score is Neuer 30-1 Rulli. And, while that won’t be the score line Tuesday, nobody with any coherent grasp of European football will have failed to notice that when Bayern lash out it’s usually the opposition 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 handed out to FC Salzburg in the last round after Matthias Jaissle’s team let Bayern off the hook in Austria after a 1-1 draw in the first leg?
Rulli, if nothing else, is a student of detail. He’ll have watched those matches — and many more — working out percentages, working on angles. Trying to turn an historic win (many in Villarreal think that last week’s 1-0 was, pound-for-pound, more remarkable than beating Manchester United last May) into the defining night in the club’s entire history. His task is to be aware, but not overawed, at what damage Robert Lewandowski, Thomas Muller, Leroy Sane, et al, can inflict when roused.
Twenty-five years ago next month, Villarreal were bought for around €400,000 by a ceramics magnate called Fernando Roig. At that time they had no training ground — daily work had to be undertaken on school playing fields, a public park or, on rare occasions, the match surface of El Madrigal. And, speaking of their El Madrigal stadium, it was a dump. A capacity of about 2,500, a roof over the only stand and no offices where the deal to sell the club could be concluded.
A professional football club further detached from FC Bayern is hard to imagine. In fact, Neuer has been in the elite almost as long as Villarreal have.
I spoke to Roig a couple of days before the win over Bayern and asked him what the guiding phrase, if there was one, would be for the last quarter century of Villarreal’s increasingly remarkable exploits. « Dreaming, » he told me. « Well, dreaming and working hard. »
Look where it’s taken them. The town with the smallest population ever to win a UEFA trophy (50,000); historic wins over Bayern, United, Inter, Arsenal, Madrid, Barcelona and Juventus now on their CVs; a lovely stadium and world-class footballers proud to have been on the Yellow Submarine’s crew list. Dreams coming true.
So it is for Rulli. Tired of being always called Argentina’s « goalkeeper of the future, » as he explained a few seasons ago, unsure where was home, deeply troubled by depression at Realobsessed with becoming his country’s No. 1 — he nevertheless never stopped dreaming or working.
Alfonso Pedraza goal 60th minute Villarreal 1-1 Athletic Bilbao
Things were at their worst a couple of years ago at Real Sociedad. Error prone, fighting for professional recognition and personal headspace he began to find enjoying himself regarded as irascible, unreliable and he asked himself: »Why? » Realization dawned that he wasn’t work, was angry at life because, in his view , the harder he worked the worse things got.
Then he did two superb, unusual, things. Unusual, at least, for high profile, supremely paid footballers who, often, aren’t well educated about how to take the kind of personal responsibility which they often cede to clubs, commercial representatives — 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 radio in the Basque Country. « I wasn’t arguing all the time or sulking. But I was working hard, looking after myself, sleeping well, arriving at training, telling myself to enjoy the experience — then a black cloud would envelop me and I’d change. I was furious with myself, embarrassed because I didn’t want my teammates or my employers to see me as I was, rather than how I thought I should be.
« Eventually I went to the club psychologist [Imanol Ibarrondo] and he helped me because I said, ‘I need your help.’ Things came into perspective. I apologized to people around me, explained what I’d been feeling — almost all of them were completely surprised. Footballers can have their heads filled with nonsense — sometimes it escapes us how privileged our life is, how much we should be enjoying it. »
Other things changed. The coach for example. As soon as Asier Garitano was removed in season 2018-19, Rulli was made first choice again and Real went to the Bernabeu and beat Real Madrid 2-0.
Rulli and Real didn’t become perfect partners, he needed to move to a different club in 2020, a different environment, and needed the trust of Unai Emery, who promoted him thanks to a superb run in the Europa League last season when Sergio Asenjo, club legend , was nominally the untouchable No. 1.
With 16 clean sheets from 37 games this season, Rulli has settled and another on Tuesday would seal Villarreal’s historic progress. History tells us that the Spanish club had, and squandered, their luck last week. They could easily have won 3-0, but didn’t. There’s usually a hefty bill to pay against the Bayerns of this world for that error. But in football, you never know. Perhaps Rulli can have another night like he did in Gdansk vs. United? Despite all that separates them, perhaps he can have his »Neuer moment »? Wouldn’t that be something.