Former players revamp Huesca, turn it into Spain sensation

HUESCA, Spain (AP) — It’s been a different kind of summer for 13-year-old Sergio and his friends in the small Spanish city of Huesca.

They’ve done something they could never do before: enjoy from up close a first-division soccer team in Spain’s La Liga.

“It’s a strange feeling,” Sergio said as he waited to get autographs from players of newly promoted Huesca before a training session. “It’s a dream to be able to see our team in the first division, playing against clubs like Barcelona and Real Madrid. This is a big deal for us.”

He was among several kids who spent their vacation morning watching the city’s latest heroes practice ahead of a much anticipated match against Lionel Messi’s Barcelona at Camp Nou Stadium on Sunday.

It will be Huesca’s first high-profile match since it earned its historic promotion last season, a feat few thought possible until the arrival of two former players who set out to revamp the modest club more than a decade ago.

“The game against Barcelona is a prize for us,” said club president Agustin Lasaosa, one of the former players who transformed Huesca. “We already know Barcelona is expected to win. It may win 5-0. But let’s see; you still have to play the game.”

The match comes on the heels of a surprising start for Huesca, which won at Eibar and drew at Athletic Bilbao.

The last time Huesca played Barcelona at Camp Nou it lost 8-1 in a 2014 Copa del Rey game. It lost the first leg 4-0 at home in what had been the teams’ first meeting.

Huesca was a third-division team then. It went back and forth between the third and fourth tiers after its debut in 1960 until reaching the second division for the first time in the 2008-09 season.

Its motto, “Fieles siempre, sin reblar” (Always faithful, never surrender), which includes an expression from the Aragon region where the team is based in northeastern Spain, helped guide the club as it endured life in the lower divisions.

But it was Lasaosa and Jose Antonio Martin Otin “Peton,” teammates at Huesca in the late 1970s, who spearheaded the project to modernize the club in the mid-2000s.

Peton is a widely known soccer analyst in Spain and a successful agent. He is touted as Spain’s Jorge Mendes, the Portuguese agent of Cristiano Ronaldo.

“We thought it would be good to get together and try to do something for Huesca,” Lasaosa told The Associated Press. “We wanted to begin a small revolution. But at the time that only meant to stop struggling in the third division. … Now look where we are. We made it to the best league in the world.”

Lasaosa said that when they arrived in 2006, the club had only a handful of employees and was 300,000 euros ($350,000) in debt. Staffers took more than one role to help out as the club started its road to recovery.

“You have to spend what you have, not more than what you have,” Lasaosa said. “That’s what made us strong. We don’t owe a single euro to anybody.”

Huesca survives mainly from the money it receives through La Liga for television rights, with the help of many small sponsors. The team’s budget was about 8 million euros ($9.3 million) last season and is expected to reach more than 40 million ($46 million) in the first division.

“We are getting a lot more money this year, but we have a lot more costs as well,” Lasaosa said.

The team’s renovated El Alcoraz Stadium will go from around 5,000 capacity to nearly 7,500.

“That may be considered a small number, but we are talking about more than 10 percent of the population,” Lasaosa said. “I remember that when I arrived you could count the fans with your fingers. There were only a few hundred people watching the matches.”

Located by the Pyrenees near France, Huesca is a medieval city of about 50,000 known mostly for tourism, with great locations for outdoor sports and good gastronomy. It is just north of Zaragoza, home to Huesca’s biggest soccer rival, Real Zaragoza.

Huesca was founded in 1960 but existed in different forms since 1910, when it was originally created by a group of Barcelona supporters, reflected in the “azulgrana” colors on its uniform.

The club was pleased to keep young Colombian forward Cucho Hernandez, whose loan from English team Watford was extended for another year. Huesca also made the controversial signing of Ruben Semedo, a former Villarreal player who is facing attempted murder charges in Spain.

The team is coached by former Argentina goalkeeper Leo Franco, who praised the club’s close connection with the local community.

“It’s important for the player to know where the club comes from, to know its culture,” said Franco, who also played for Huesca.

After the team’s open practice session this week, fans were allowed to enter the field to talk to players. It ended with a group photo with the whole squad.

“Huesca used to be everyone’s second team, after Real Madrid or Atletico Madrid or Barca,” said Sofia Avellanas, who took a group of kids to the training session. “But things have changed. Now it’s clear, it’s all about Huesca.”