The Bosman ruling ended the foreign “quota” limit on the number EU players allowed to play in European teams. There are few teams who have exploited this more than Inter Milan and Villareal who meet each other in Wednesday’s Champions League quarter-final.
The two sides – who meet at the San Siro – have a combined total of 25 Latin American players, the vast majority of whom have EU passports. Villareal also have a Chilean coach, Mauricio Pellegrini.
Even more staggering is the fact that 13 of the 25 are Argentines. Pellegrini himself won championships with Argentina’s River and San Lorenzo before he joined Villareal.
Inter – whose two European Cups were won in the mid-60s under Argentine-born coach Helenio Herrera – have several big names, the most notable of whom are Brazilian striker Adriano and Argentines Juan Sebastián Verón and Javier Zanetti, team captain.
Inter also have three Argentines who were released by Real Madrid in recent seasons during its star-buying sprees: Esteban Cambiasso, Santiago Solari and Walter Samuel.
With at least six regular Latin American starters, the Milanese side is a unique Italian powerhouse in that its back-four regularly includes three foreigners: Zanetti, Samuel and Colombian centre-back Iván Córdoba – who spent two years at San Lorenzo before moving to Milan.
But the foreign touch has not stopped coach Roberto Mancini from moulding an archetypical Italian side with tight defence, lethal counter-attacks and a tireless midfield.
Pellegrini, on the other hand, has used his 10 fellow Latin Americans to shape Villareal into a team widely lauded as La Liga’s best footballing side, in spite of the performances put on regularly by Barcelona. He has done so without Barcelona’s mountains of money spent buying Ronalidnho et al.
Pellegrini’s work at tiny Villareal – with a stadium capacity of under 23,000 – has even managed to transform Uruguayan centre-forward Diego Forlán into a menacing goalscorer, something Sir Alex Ferguson failed to achieve. Like Pellegrini, Forlán spent several seasons in Argentina before moving to Europe.
But Pellegrini’s main achievement is the manner in which he developed his team around Argentine playmaker Juan Román Riquelme who was discarded by Barcelona two seasons ago. Villareal are like two different teams depending on whether Riquelme is present or not. Few Champions League teams centre around one single player quite as much as Villareal do around Riquelme.
The strategy has worked well. Villareal ended third in the domestic league last year and reached the quarter-finals in its first Champions League season. The team entered Spain’s top division for the first time in 1998, only to be relegated that same season, but returned the following year.
The confidence gained by Riquelme with his success at Villareal saw him snatch the playmaking position in Argentina’s national side from Verón, who has not been called up for over a year.
The array of Latin American talent in the two teams also includes Argentine skipper Juan Sorin - who is not always a starter, however, with Villareal - and Brazil’s Zé Maria, César and Julio César with Inter, where Uruguayan star Alvaro Recoba is also a regular on the bench.
Bolivian centre-back, Juan Peña (Villareal) and talented Chilean playmaker David Pizarro (Inter) are among several other Latin Americans in the two teams.
With Latin America so well represented on Wednesday it is reasonable to assume that regional TV audiences will be more interested in watching this Champions League match than any of the six Copa Libertadores games scheduled this week.