Gerónimo Rulli: ‘I never thought about United, De Gea – I hit it with all my soul’

“‘Gero, don’t screw it up. Just stick it in.’” Gerónimo Rulli puts himself back on the spot and smiles. “And that’s what happened,” he says. All that and it came to this, to him. One shot that would be for ever. Well, two: the penalty he would take and the penalty he would face. It was 10-10 in an extraordinary shootout at the end of the Europa League meeting with Manchester United in May, the first final Villarreal had played, this team from the town of just 50,577, and history was calling him. So was the referee.

“I was walking away when he said: ‘Goalie, your turn,’” Rulli recalls. “‘Me? Are you sure?’ I’d lost count. ‘Are you sure there’s no one left?’ From the moment I took the ball, the key was not to think. In a shootout for a goalkeeper there’s a lot of time alone to think, for pressure to build. Your teammates are scoring all of their penalties, the responsibility grows, and then they depend solely on you. And that’s lovely.”

It is afterwards, anyway. Rulli scored the 21st and saved the 22nd penalty of the shootout, taking Villarreal to their first trophy – and returning them to the Champions League, where on Wednesday night they meet United again. It was the kind of moment that deserves a statue. “No, no, no, no statue,” Rulli laughs. “Scoring stands out and that was amazing but the ‘photo’ is the save, flying, those two seconds, the whole tribe running towards me, all the suffering worth it.”

Suffering is the word. It shouldn’t have got that far, Rulli says, and he doesn’t share the assumption that in a shootout keepers cannot lose. When he placed the ball, there had been pressure. Anger, too. “My teammates did their job: they were all scoring. The one that wasn’t doing his job was me because I hadn’t stopped any. I knew how most United players took them, although intuition comes into play and some changed side, and I was annoyed because I had touched almost every kick, five or so, but hadn’t stopped any.

“I knew exactly where my wife was: level with the penalty spot, to the left. The rest of the family couldn’t be there but my wife was, and pregnant at the time. I said to her: ‘If the nerves didn’t kill you today nothing will.’ She couldn’t bear to look. She’d wound me up for years: ‘When are you going to save a penalty? When are you going to score a goal?’

“I never thought it would be my turn and had never taken one. We hadn’t practised penalties because you can’t recreate all that. The manager had said: ‘Hit it with your heart but a cool head.’ I was thinking about penalties us keepers hate. We have the odds stacked against us. The distance from the spot to the goal is short, the goal is big. If it’s well taken it’s very hard to save. It was a case of hitting it high where it’s difficult to reach and, above all, hard.

“But I tried not to think of anything, thinking would have been worse: just hit it hard. I’d got a touch to the previous one, from [Victor] Lindelöf and I was wound up. I never thought about it being a final, Manchester United, David de Gea. I just thought: ‘Don’t screw it up. Hit it hard, with everything you’ve got left.’ And I hit it with all my soul.”

The ball flew into the net and the roles were reversed for one last shot. De Gea stood on the spot, Rulli on his line. “Throughout the shootout, we didn’t talk. He’s in his own world, I’m in mine. I was just focusing on memorising who was taking it and where their penalties would go. When it was David’s turn, I had no idea where he was going but the way he approached the ball and the last step of his run-up made me think it was impossible he could hit it really hard. It’s all happening in milliseconds but I could see it clearly because of the way he slowed before the ball, his body shape.

Rulli saves De Gea’s kick to win the Europa League.
Rulli saves De Gea’s kick to win the Europa League. Photograph: Kacper Pempel/Reuters

“After the game he congratulated me,” Rulli says. There’s a pause. “I’d have preferred the shootout to have ended earlier, to have saved any penalty but his. I know how a goalkeeper suffers.”

The gloves went into the crowd, the shirt in a box ready to be framed. The boots are in a safe place too, a reminder of a long journey, and an extraordinary end. “When it happens, you think of all the bad times, of how you left your last club here [Real Sociedad], having to go to France, how Villarreal trusted in you when many wouldn’t. This was for the people that helped me. Winning is saying: ‘It was all worth it.’”

For Rulli, that feeling runs deep. His wife, left in tears, has suffered the cruelty of the criticism he had often faced. Second choice to Sergio Asenjo domestically, there had been suggestions he would lose his European place once Villarreal reached the final. Returning to Spain at Villarreal was an opportunity he needed, a new start after departing Real Sociedad for Montpellier in difficult circumstances in 2019. He had resisted that move, his relationship with La Real’s sporting director strained, and he talks about “dark days”, insecurity, the importance of the person behind the player.

“It wasn’t working at La Real and the relationship with the fans wasn’t as it should have been. There were lots of things, some personal, that prevented me from being at my best. I didn’t feel comfortable. There was a lot of work behind the scenes, people who are nothing to do with football … mental work. I’m glad I went through it now because I came out a better person. It’s important that people around you trust you, like you, support you. I never had a bad relationship with teammates, but with other people …”

There’s a pause. “You start to think: ‘What am I not doing right?’ The uncertainty grows, the insecurity. I think I’m a nice guy and I want a good relationship with the people I work with. It’s very important you’re sure of yourself.”

That’s not always easy, and Rulli has not always been in control of his own destiny: his path to his remarkable place in history was not the straightest and certainly didn’t follow plans of his own, the journey taking in a silent, invisible spell at Manchester City in 2016. If you don’t remember there is a good reason: Rulli didn’t play a game, attend a training session, set foot at the Etihad or meet Pep Guardiola.

Gerónimo Rulli says: ‘I’m still proud Manchester City rated me enough to go for me.’
Gerónimo Rulli says: ‘I’m still proud Manchester City rated me enough to go for me.’ Photograph: Pablo Garcia

“Clubs in Argentina weren’t going through the best of times and investment companies come in and buy you. The business belongs to them. I was bought by a fund when I was at Estudiantes. They came, bought me, loaned me to La Real the first year, then sold me to City who sent me back to La Real on loan. When I arrived in Spain, I didn’t have the freedom I do now; thankfully now I’m 100% Villarreal’s. I was dependent on that investment group, who sold me to the highest bidder and I didn’t have a say. If young players can avoid that, I’d recommend doing so.

“I’m still proud Manchester City rated me enough to go for me. I’m grateful to the people there. History will say that I was part of City, even if I didn’t play a minute, and never went inside the stadium.” Rulli laughs. “I’ve never been to Manchester – this will be the first time.

“We played Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea and didn’t lose in 90 minutes, which speaks highly of the club. We knocked out Arsenal and got to penalties against United and Chelsea, one we won [with Rulli in goal], one we lost [without Rulli in goal]. We can compete with any team and this is a game with a special spice. There’s the Europa League final and it’s [Cristiano] Ronaldo’s first Champions League game back at Old Trafford. Then there’s [Raphaël] Varane, [Jadon] Sancho.”

Asked how he got on last time he faced Ronaldo, the goalkeeper cracks up. “I think he scored a hat-trick,” he shoots back. “He took two penalties: he scored one but missed the other … which counts as mine.” A repeat of the final is impossible, but another moment from the spot is not. And with Bruno Fernandes unlikely to be given another go after last weekend, it would have to be Ronaldo he saves from this time, a prospect that has Rulli grinning again. “Well,” he says, “I’ll try.”


Leave a Reply

This website uses cookies. By continuing to use this site, you accept our use of cookies.  Learn more