Pepe Reina has represented some of Europe’s most iconic clubs over the past two decades but there was always one the former Spain goalkeeper longed to return “home” to one day.
Reina’s second spell at Villarreal began 20 years after he first pulled on the gloves for El Submarino Amarillo – the Yellow Submarine – but while the 40-year-old jokes his hair may have changed slightly since then, his passion has not.
“It is like a dream come true because since I left I have been thinking about this many times every year,” says Reina, who, after joining in the summer with the intention of retiring at the club, has become first-choice since Geronimo Rulli was signed by Ajax in January.
“What I am doing is recovering the feelings I didn’t have from a personal perspective in recent years and that is very important – being able to retire, being absolutely happy with that feeling of belonging to the team.”
Reina first joined from Barcelona in 2002 and helped Villarreal qualify for the Champions League for the first time in 2005 before leaving for Liverpool, where he stayed until 2014.
He won silverware with the Reds as well as at Napoli and Bayern Munich and was also part of Spain’s World Cup and European Championship-winning squads, before representing AC Milan, Aston Villa and Lazio.
Lots has changed for Villarreal in that time, too.They reached the Champions League semi-finals after Reina left with a team that boasted Marcos Senna, Juan Roman Riquelme, Diego Forlan and Juan Pablo Sorin, bounced back from relegation in 2012 and beat Manchester United to win the Europa League in 2021.
“It was a small club in those days and I had, let’s say, more ambitious, competitive goals in mind,” says Reina. “But over the years both of us have grown.”
Reina’s return coincides with the club’s centenary season and yesterday, Villarreal celebrated their 100th anniversary. The first 75 years of their existence was spent away from the top flight but only once have they finished outside the top seven since winning promotion again in 2012-13, and the club are closing in on 200 games in European competition.
Villarreal currently sit sixth in La Liga, seven points off a Champions League spot
There have also been many improvements off the field, including a renovation of the club’s iconic El Madrigal home, which has been rebranded Estadio de la Ceramica, recognising the local Castellon ceramics industry.
“It is a club that doesn’t have the same budget like Real Madrid, Barcelona or Atletico Madrid, for instance,” says Reina.
“But it is a club where the feeling of belonging for the players is very important, where the work we have been doing with the academy over many years has generated lots of assets and it is a club that is still growing and growing very quickly.
“The team has become extremely dynamic and are not only fighting to remain in the first division but they have even bigger, more important targets. The academy players that are now joining the club, they are brilliant, safe and more solid players, much more competitive than players in the past.”
Reina longs to remain at Villarreal beyond this swansong and has ambitions to become a coach.
“This is the option I have been dreaming about,” he explains. “That was my ultimate goal, something I have been thinking about for many years and I hope I will be able to help the club to carry on growing.
“The fundamental thing is to achieve stability so you can fight to achieve important things and to always occupy European positions… and having enough economic solvency, which is no easy task nowadays.
“But above all, having a Villarreal that is full of academy players so that we can carry on developing that important asset for the club and in 15 years’ time can stand where we stand right now, competing against the very best and continually producing academy players. That is the ultimate target with me as a coach, or somebody else.”
Featuring in that future Yellow Submarine team, the father-of-five would love to see more Reinas – his own father Miguel played in goal for Barcelona and Atletico Madrid but retired before Pepe was born.
Reina’s sons, Thiago and Luca, have played for Villarreal’s youth teams while also acting as ball boys for their dad.
“Children are the most wonderful thing that life gives you and having them behind your goal, that for me was something very special,” adds Reina.
“They have played for Villarreal – one was a goalie and the other was a left winger – but, in any case, they must enjoy football and grow with these (positive) values we produce in the dressing room together with our colleagues.
“They have to be very proud about the Villarreal shirt. For me, it would be a dream come true if both joined Villarreal in the future.”
Culled from BBCSports