David and Goliath

When four Euro 2008 winners came to UCD... And lost!

Remembering when Marcos Senna, Santi Cazorla, Carlos Marchena and Joan Capdevila were part of a Villarreal side that played at Belfield on 16 July 2011.


IT’S 10 YEARS this summer since one of the most remarkable friendlies in Irish football history.

The season before they had finished fourth in La Liga. A few months later, they were competing in a Champions League group alongside Man City, Bayern Munich and Napoli.

Three summers previously, four members of Villarreal’s team — Marcos Senna, Santi Cazorla, Carlos Marchena and Joan Capdevila — had been part of Spain’s Euro 2008-winning squad, with Senna and Marchena both making the Team of the Tournament.

And of that quartet, Marchena and Capdevilla had won the World Cup the previous summer, with the latter the only non-Real Madrid/Barcelona player to start in the final against the Dutch. Cazorla would almost certainly have gone to that tournament too were it not for an unfortunately timed back injury and niggling issues also contributed to Senna not making the final squad in 2010.

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And while the Spanish outfit were getting ready for the Champions League, UCD were in the middle of an indifferent season. Ronan Finn, Greg Bolger, David McMillan and Ciaran Kilduff were among the key players that had recently departed the club.

Of their opening 22 fixtures, the Students had won five, drawn three and lost 14, including a 6-1 defeat to Shamrock Rovers the previous month, leaving them languishing towards the bottom of the table.

Yet by the end of the season, only one of the two sides that met at Belfield that day would be relegated from the top flight, and it wasn’t UCD.


Business Post journalist and long-suffering UCD supporter Emmet Ryan was on commentary duty at the ground that day.

He had commentated on the Super League games in the past and was “experimenting” with the format. 

The Dubliner thought it would be “a bit of craic” covering the Villarreal game and asked friend Lee Daly to do co-commentary as he had lived in Spain the previous year and been watching “comical amounts of La Liga”.

“Sadly, the audio recording is now lost to time, much to my own chagrin, to be honest,” he says.

“This was audio-only because no one had good video at the time. So it was as professional as we could get. 

“I did some research beforehand and Villarreal’s previous opening friendly of the pre-season tour, they played some regional side from their part of Spain and they scored like 24 goals, or something insane. So I figured: ‘Right, this is a team that’s just going to go to town on us.’

“UCD had played an away match the night before [in the league], so everyone was unsure what sort of team they were going to put out.

“Basically, after the game, the first-teamers seemed to decide: ‘We’re still playing Villarreal, we’re not giving up our spots for that.’ They all played the game, even though most of the starting XI played the previous night.”

soccer-2010-fifa-world-cup-south-africa-group-h-chile-v-spain-loftus-versfeld-stadium Joan Capdevila pictured playing for Spain at the 2010 World Cup. EMPICS Sport EMPICS Sport

He continues: “It was not quite a full house, it was close to it. The problem was, with the weather being bad, not too many people wanted to sit in the uncovered areas, so the covered area was absolutely slammed. You had a few brave souls in the uncovered areas as well, but it was unusual because we weren’t used to the stand being packed.

“Even those of us who are close to the people in charge didn’t know the game was going ahead until a handful of days beforehand. The game was a Saturday and I think it was the Monday or Tuesday we found out that it was happening.

“I had been going to games since ’95, and in 16 years, I hadn’t seen a game at that level. Especially not in our own ground.

“We played a Liverpool XI in ’95 in Lansdowne, but that was very different, because you’re not at the home ground, so it was a different vibe to it and I hadn’t got to go to that at the time either.

“Obviously playing them in their real home ground is, up until a few years later, the most buzz I’d seen in terms of a pro-UCD crowd in my time going to the Bowl at least anyway.”

Samir Belhout started the game on the right-wing, having played 90 minutes on his own up front the previous night in the 2-0 loss against Dundalk at Oriel Park.

“It was the first time I ever played in the Bowl where the stand was actually full,” Belhout recalls. “It was the first game I had for UCD where there was a real sense of occasion.

“It was the year before Rovers qualified for Europe. It was a bit of a lull period for the league at that time. 

“Even when we played the bigger clubs, it wouldn’t attract large crowds at that time. So it was definitely a little different.”

“I was talking to Diarmuid McNally, UCD’s assistant manager at the time,” says Ryan. “We were earlier than most people getting to the ground. I said: ‘How will we do today?’ He said: ‘I think we’ve got a chance.’ Maccer is not the most emotional man, so for all you knew, he was taking the piss, but it was deadly serious as it turned out.

“But it was a very strange day. UCD has a lot of international students during the summer and there were a load of Spanish students there because this team had reached the Champions League semi-final and a couple of Europa League/Uefa Cup semi-finals at that stage.”

samir-belhout-and-pat-sullivan Samir Belhout pictured playing for UCD in 2011. Lorraine O'Sullivan / INPHO Lorraine O'Sullivan / INPHO / INPHO

Despite McNally’s optimism ahead of the game, Belhout says it did not reflect the general mood in the squad.

“If you asked any single player for that game [they wouldn't have given us a chance], because I think we only got back from Dundalk around 12 o’clock. We drove back down and then it was a case of sleep and meet the next day for a game against Villarreal.

“So we were like: ‘Just stay tight, minimise the chances and try to keep this to not a cricket score.”

“I don’t think we ever thought we were going to win the game,” agrees UCD midfielder Sean Russell. “Of course you had to enjoy it, but it’s always important in these friendlies, you’re not just representing your club, you’re representing the league. You have to apply yourself 100%.”

Ryan, meanwhile, believes UCD’s relatively unremarkable season up to that point worked in the team’s favour on the day.

Even the side that finished bottom of the league that season wasn’t guaranteed to go down but instead qualified for a play-off. And by the time the Villarreal game came along, UCD were 13 points ahead of last-placed Galway, who had picked up a total of five points all season with 14 games remaining, thus rendering it unlikely that the Students would end up in a relegation dogfight that year.

“It was interesting circumstances because the reality of the club’s season was that even though it was only July, we were out of the cup and with our league season, it was going to take a dramatic change in circumstances not to be mid-table. 

“It was generally implausible that there was going to be anything to play for the rest of the year.

“Obviously, in any mid-season friendly, the priority is normally that any player doesn’t get hurt. In this case, it was ‘well, we could probably live with lads getting hurt’. I think it was the most interesting game left that year.”

Russell, son of UCD’s manager Martin, was just 17 at the time and had only recently made his first-team debut. He started on the bench before being introduced in the 59th minute.

“I had a few tastes of the first team but was by no means a regular. It was something that for me was unbelievable, being in school and telling your mates you’re going to play against Villarreal at the weekend — I enjoyed that. And they were all able to come to the game as well — it was massive for a young lad. But more so to learn, the physique of the players and how strong they were, not only technically, but everything they did in the game. 

“You watch these guys on TV, Marcos Senna in particular, and he looks like your average height and size for a footballer. He was so strong, he was massive, you’re up close against these footballers and really, it makes you realise the levels.”

soccer-uefa-european-championship-2008-final-germany-v-spain-ernst-happel-stadium Spain's Marcos Senna (2nd r) celebrates with his teammates after winning the European Championships. EMPICS Sport EMPICS Sport

“There were so many famous names and top players,” adds Belhout. “You were a bit like at the start: ‘Wow.’ But once it started, it was just like playing another game.

“I was playing right wing. I remember looking: ‘Who is playing left-back?’ It was Capdevilla and I was like: ‘Oh great.’ He had just won a World Cup and this was my first year playing senior football as a regular.

“He was older at that stage, into his 30s, and just physically, he was on a different level to anything I had played against in the league. He was just so fit, strong, big, mobile. Marchena in the air was just scarily powerful.

“And just how loud they were as well when you played against them, they were very regimented and they didn’t pull any punches with each other. They held each other so accountable that it was probably something I hadn’t experienced. With UCD, it’s more of a philosophy of developing players. There are not so many older pros around.

“It was only the start of their pre-season, so I’d say they were a few levels off, but it was still another level.

“And Capdevilla, he was probably the best player I’d come up against when I was playing football. There were a couple of times I got the better of him and I still let the lads know. When we meet up, it’s still a sort of running joke that I played my best game against a World Cup winner.”

Ryan recalls: “Samir clearly knew he was only playing 45 minutes. Capdevilla did as well, but Capdevilla played as though he was playing for 90 minutes, whereas Samir thought: ‘I’ve got 45 minutes to have the best game of my life and his logic for having the best game of his life was to run this man into the ground, and he did was the simple version of it. He absolutely broke Capdevilla. It was pure, simple running like an insane person. There was some football on the side, but it was ‘let’s see if this guy wants to really run for 45 minutes… Nope, you don’t.’”

Speaking to about the game, UCD player Paul Corry echoed this sentiment: “Sami had an unbelievable game in the first half against Capdevilla, and I’m convinced he came off at half-time because he was having such a great game, and thought, I’m not going to match that again.”

Belhout, though, who had turned 20 the day before, plays down the suggestion that he only ever intended to feature for 45 minutes:

“There’s a half-truth to that. I had played up front on my own the night before and I was very tired. But I was obviously buzzing then when we were playing these, so the first 45 minutes, I was full of energy. I do remember Martin [Russell] asking me towards the end of the first half: ‘How are you?’ He was asking how the legs were and I was thinking: ‘He’s giving me an out here.’ I was sort of like: ‘Well, I am tired and they’re going to change their whole team. It doesn’t get any better than this, so I’ll let Dean Marshall come on and I’ll just soak up the second half.’”

italy-juventus-fc-vs-acf-fiorentina Borja Valero, now of Fiorentina, was among the scorers for Villarreal. SIPA USA / PA Images SIPA USA / PA Images / PA Images

Incredibly, UCD found themselves 2-1 up at half-time. Borja Valero gave the visitors the lead on 13 minutes before the Students hit back through goals from Paul O’Conor and Michael Leahy in the 23rd and 27th minute respectively.

Despite their lowly position in the Premier Division, the hosts were holding their own against a team considered to be among the top sides in Europe at the time.

“I was just re-watching the highlights earlier, I watch them four or five times a year typically,” says Ryan.

“Even though they were full-time and much-better paid professionals, they weren’t overwhelming UCD with their physicality or an ability to outrun them for most of the 90.

“For a side who have played most of that starting XI the previous night, it was just unreal. Clearly, these lads had nothing to lose. ‘It’s okay to be dead the next week and just give everything today.’

“That was the part that Villarreal didn’t really expect, that there wouldn’t be that level of pace and intensity from UCD from the off. Because of the nature of the team, they had no choice but to play football against an opponent, as they were never going to be the most physical side.

“So they had to attack against Villarreal, which was going to lead to gaps at the back, or so we expected.”

“The funny thing is it wasn’t really backs-to-the-wall,” adds Belhout. “We actually got on the ball, we kept it, we popped it around.

“It’s one of these we always used to talk about where we played against bigger and better teams that liked to pass the ball.

“Shamrock Rovers or Pat’s at the time were probably two of the bigger clubs that were playing good football, we might nick a result against one of them.

“Sometimes we’d get hammered because we’d be way too open. But we would have always struggled against the likes of Bray and Athlone, the real physical teams.”

Not that Villarreal were averse to physicality, however.

“I got clattered with the first touch of the ball I took,” says Russell. “Your man absolutely upended me. Again, it shows their professionalism, their willingness to win.

“In particular Paul Corry was just fantastic in the game. I remember thinking: ‘Jesus, they might nick him after this.’

“And they weren’t happy to be losing whatsoever or even going behind. I remember coming on, getting the tackle and thinking: ‘That was as strong a hit as I’d taken, a wake-up call.’”

paul-corry Paul Corry was among UCD's most impressive performers on the day. Cathal Noonan Cathal Noonan

Belhout continues: “I think it was a case of them going out thinking ‘this is going to be easy, we’ll just win 5-0′. But towards the end of the first half, there were a few of their players getting a little bit ratty and a couple of tackles going in, and it was getting heated. They were starting to think: ‘What’s happening here, we’re 2-1 down against a team of lads where the average age was maybe 22?’

“They probably looked at the league table and saw we were towards the bottom, so I’d say it was a bit of a shock to them anyway. Towards the end of the first half, there was one incident in particular. Sean Harding went in with quite a strong tackle and a few players were squaring up to each other.

“It was a competitive game and I would never say: ‘We got the result because they just didn’t care, they were just going through the motions.’”

By half-time, UCD were sensing the possibility of a famous result. They were also growing in confidence.

“I do remember laughing on the bench,” Russell recalls. “It was only a couple of minutes in and lads were nervous. Darren Meenan was playing with us at the time. The ball came to him, the left-back came steaming in and he called a ‘nutmeg’ on him in his thick Sheriff Street accent. He put it through his legs and your man slipped. It was right in front of the dugout. He got away with it, went on and I thought: ‘Here we go.’”

Ryan adds: “I remember when UCD equalised it was like: ‘Okay, pretty good, they might be able to get a game out of this. Let’s see how long the lads can last.’ 

“I was already losing it at 2-1 but I managed to gather myself at half-time. I’m kind of going: ‘If UCD can get a draw out of this, it’s an extraordinary moment.’

“I was not fooling myself into thinking Villarreal weren’t going to have more chances. But at 2-1, I was going: ‘Okay, this is a much better story I was expecting to be telling on commentary.’

“I had people messaging in. They were loving it because as the game wore on, the worse I was getting. All notions of neutrality were disappearing. I was a disgrace to commentary as a profession. Frankly, I wasn’t being paid, so I don’t have to take too much grief over it.”

soccer-barclays-premier-league-arsenal-v-manchester-united-emirates-stadium Santi Cazorla joined Arsenal for £10 million the following summer. Adam Davy Adam Davy

It was only after the exhausted Belhout came off that he could fully appreciate the level of talent on display. Villarreal changed their entire team at the break. The good news was that Marchena and Capdevilla had been substituted. On the other hand, Senna and Cazorla were now on, with the latter a particularly influential performer.

“I just remember watching them and it was the closest I’d ever been to a player like that and just how comfortable he was off both feet, I’d never really seen anything like it before,” remembers Belhout. “He was so tricky with the ball and just seemed to move at a different speed to everyone else. It’s like everyone else was in slow motion and he was on a completely different wavelength in terms of how fast he moved the ball. He scored a goal, he must have had four players around him, but it seemed like nobody could get close to him — you just couldn’t.

“I think where it’s misleading on the TV is all these players are at an unbelievably high level. You might think ‘he’s not great’. But if you see that player in person, you’d be like ‘wow, he’s unbelievable,’ even a regular Premier League player.”

Marco Ruben equalised just after half-time and with the game finely balanced at 2-2, Russell came off the bench just before the hour mark, initially playing on the left wing before subsequently becoming part of a three-man midfield.

“I was nervous enough, to be honest, and I always did get nervous. But more so playing against those lads, you just don’t want to look off the level. You want to take care of the ball, take care of your touch. The game was very competitive. And the game was always close. So you didn’t want to be the one to give the ball away, because of the quality they had, they’d cut you open.

“How they read the game, when they did and didn’t press you, their body shape, I had never come up against anything like it before. They made it so difficult. For a 17-year-old, I was more than happy just to run after them.

“But I thought I did okay with the ball. I remember getting nutmegged a couple of times in a row by Cazorla, but I was able to laugh about it at the end of the game.

“I moved into midfield for a bit, and that experience with Cazorla and Senna, that was just chasing shadows.

“I don’t think I got the ball again. The way they passed and moved, the angles they created, it was impossible to defend.

“When you got tight to them, they spun you, when you stood off [that also hurt you]. It was a real lesson.”

Villarreal may have benefited from the introduction of their most technically gifted players, but UCD continued to punch above their weight.

tomas-boyle Tomas Boyle was among the scorers for UCD. Gary Carr / INPHO Gary Carr / INPHO / INPHO

Tomas Boyle’s header put them back in front just after the hour mark, before Cazorla made it 3-3 with a stunning individual effort six minutes later.

With 20 minutes remaining, weaker teams in their position may have wilted, but UCD held firm.

“I recall Nilmar having a chance,” says Ryan. “There was that pregnant pause on commentary and it didn’t go in. There were one or two moments, but for most of the 90, UCD were the ones bringing the pace and pressure.

“Villarreal had scored three goals, but three goals would have been considered a good result [for the hosts] going in. I was very impressed with how UCD were able to play their game without thinking about it.

“Every time Villarreal came back, the lads didn’t get too rattled. When it went 3-3, I was saying: ‘We might be able to hang on.’ But internally, I was thinking: ‘The clock has to strike midnight, the glass slipper is wearing off, there’s no way this is going to keep going.’”


Yet on 85 minutes, the unthinkable happened and UCD went 4-3 up, courtesy of Joan Oriol’s own goal.

“It was a corner, header, a deflection and goal. I just went rather politely, ‘it’s a goal for UCD’. I was waiting to hear Michael Higgins, the PA announcer, say who the scorer was. Michael, God rest him, had a clear policy since time immemorial and it has even been continued by his successor — own-goal scorers are not announced at UCD games.

“You get to injury-time and what I recall really well, the crowd are calling for it, the referee has a whistle in his mouth, then there’s this absolute silence, the whole stadium went silent at once, then he blows full-time and everything goes absolutely insane.

“I was going full Bjørge Lillelien: ‘King Juan Carlos, your boys took a hell of a beating.’ I got in Julio and Enrique Iglesias. I’m pretty sure I mentioned Antonio Banderas but I forgot what other famous Spanish people I lumped in there. But it was basically just 90 seconds of me expressing levels of joy I could never express in polite society, shall we say. Just completely roaring about what an achievement it was for UCD and all that.

“It’s still one of my greatest ever memories in sport. It may have been just a friendly between two teams, but for basically a bunch of semi-pros and part-timers for certain to beat a side who had reached the semi-finals of the second-biggest competition in Europe the previous year, this was a heck of a big deal. The idea of seeing that playing out in the Bowl was unheard of.

“In saying that, Erling Haaland has played in the Bowl since, but that was in a youth game. But at the time, that level of player playing in the Bowl was unthinkable. And UCD went and bloody beat them.

“Being a UCD fan, you accept mediocrity, it’s like a warm blanket. We don’t win trophies very often. We’ve won a couple of First Divisions in my time and we won a Super Cup, which was well celebrated even though it’s a pre-season tournament. But there’s been one FAI Cup semi-final in the entire time I’ve followed UCD and that’s literally it. There were League Cup finals and we lost both. We don’t expect to be in contention to lift silverware. And of the three times, UCD have made Europe, I was only three the first time and the other two times, we weren’t expecting it. One was the Intertoto and the other was famously the last year the Fair Play award led to spots in Europe. And that was great as well obviously.

“It was an extraordinary moment, right up there with the win over Dudelange [in the Europa League] for me.”

sean-russell Sean Russell was just 17 when he played for UCD against Villarreal. Cathal Noonan / INPHO Cathal Noonan / INPHO / INPHO

“When you go back and look at games you played, it stands out,” says Russell. “Obviously, I played a small part in it, but it’s definitely something you look back on with a smile on your face and you’re happy you played in it because there are very few moments that stand out straight away when you finish playing.”

Belhout, who spent several seasons playing for UCD thereafter, adds: “For me, it would be between that and the Europa League [as the best memory]. The Europa League would probably be a little bit above it because they were competitive games and it was a completely different type of experience where we were written off because we got relegated before the Europa League.

“We got in through the fair-play rule, which was a running joke nearly with the media and the wider community. The fact that we got through that first qualifying round against F91, that experience was longer, so that would be number one, but this would be a close second.”

He continues: “It’s a nice conversation to have when you run into the lads and things come up about it. We had a night out that night. We went to Palace [nightclub] and were at one of the lads’ houses having a couple of drinks beforehand.

“It was at the start of the mid-season break, so we were like: ‘We’ll go out and have a drink.’

“We were just sort of sitting around. If anyone could look in and say: ‘Those lads have just played against Cazorla,’ it would have been a hard story to sell and maybe not a lot of people would have believed it.’

“A lot of these lads I’d still be friends with now and I’d still talk to them quite often. We would have had our scholarship fees and our accommodation paid for, but wages wise, we were probably only on an appearance fee and not a high one at that — maybe €50 or something.

“It’s surreal in that if you want a night out, it’s not like you’ve loads of money sitting in the bank. The contrast between us and them and when you dig deeper into the fact that a few of us were thinking okay, we’re going to Palace tonight, get on the guest lists. Because you’re students, you’re aware of every drinks deal in the country for the nights you’re able to go out after a game. It’s just the sort of contrast between the two, it’s a funny one we talk about [to this day].”

soccer-uefa-euro-2008-quarter-final-match-spain-vs-italy-austria Spanish soccer team; (back L-R) Iker Casillas, Carlos Marchena, Sergio Ramos, Joan Capdevila, Marcos Senna, Fernando Torres; (front L-R) David Silva, Xavi, David Villa, Andres Iniesta, Carles Puyol; poses ahead of the UEFA EURO 2008 quarter-final match against Italy at the Ernst Happel stadium in Vienna. DPA / PA Images DPA / PA Images / PA Images

Unfortunately, Russell was not yet at the legal drinking age and thus, unable to join his teammates.

“I don’t think I could get a hold of an ID that night,” he laughs. “I just went home to play the PlayStation probably. I wish I was a bit older.

“But I think a couple of the Villarreal lads might have turned up there. I think there were a few of them out, but they definitely were in a different area to our lads.

“I can’t imagine the lads in the student accommodation were getting into where the Villarreal lads were.”

Ryan didn’t join them either, though he was likewise out that night.

“I went to that game thinking I’d be fairly calm throughout and it would [entail] describing how wonderful Villarreal were. Then I’d go home, have my dinner, go out, meet my friend for a going-away party and have a bit of craic.

“Instead, I’ve lost my voice, I’m hugging people who never do hugs, but they were okay with it this time, it was an exceptional moment. And I was still doing it for 25 minutes afterwards, not leaving the Bowl for ages because none of us could believe it.

“I think we only went for one or two afterwards because I was meeting my then-girlfriend and I had to explain to her: ‘I’ve lost my voice.’ I genuinely had, I couldn’t really talk that night out. I basically had this really whispy voice, because I had thrown everything at it.

“I was doing a whole lot of talking and I was getting louder and louder, and hoarser and hoarser, so there were wild celebrations. I met Lee in the evening because he went home first, he came back in to meet me at that party and could see I was in absolute tatters. I was mostly drinking water while having the odd pint, but I was just so tired that I couldn’t drink that fast. I just needed water to get my throat back.

“So it was a very odd evening. We were working through it because it was sort of like we had a cup final out of nowhere for UCD because we don’t really have those big moments as a club and suddenly, we find out we’re playing this side and even then it’s: ‘Oh yeah, it’ll be nice to see this great team.’ It’s only during the game, you realise: ‘This matters. This is going to be one of the greatest moments you ever have as a UCD fan.’”

Teams (via

UCD - Barron; Harding (Kavanagh 49), Nangle, O’Connor, Leahy (Captain) (Boyle 45), Corry (Ledwith 59), Belhout (Marshall 45) (Morrison 83), Creevy (Russell 59), Rusk (Roche 74), O’Conor, Meenan (Doyle 74).

Subs not used: McGinley.

Goalscorers: O’Conor 23, Leahy 27, Boyle 64, Joan Oriol (o.g) 85.

Villarreal CF (1ST Half) Diego Lopez, Marcchena, Capedvilla, Mario, Joselu, Gerard Bardas, Ruben, Cani, Kiko, Valero, Bruno

Villarreal CF (2nd Half) – Cesar, Marino, Iriome, Pepe, Castellani, Marcos Gullon, Marcos Senna, Cazorla, Nilmar, Mussachio, Joan Oriol.

Goalscorers: Valero 13, Ruben 46, Cazorla 70.

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