Meet Barcelona’s opponents Huesca: The ‘phenomenon’ taking La Liga by storm

BARCELONA — Huesca’s trip to Barcelona this weekend has it all if you’re a fan of “little club takes on big club” bingo.

The whole of Huesca’s budget smaller than Lionel Messi’s salary? Check.
The population of the town fitting into Camp Nou (nearly two times over)? Check.
A first-ever top flight meeting between the two sides? Check.
Huesca playing in the third division of Spanish football as recently as four years ago? Check.
Spending the majority of their existence, since their re-formation in 1960, in the fourth tier? Check.
Team colours (Blaugrana) inherited from Barca because they were founded by a group of Barca fans? Full house.

In layman’s terms: the odds are heavily stacked against Huesca when they take on Barca in La Liga on Sunday. However, that won’t stop them targeting three points.

“Huesca go out to win every game, whoever it’s against,” CEO Jose Antonio Martin Otin, better known as Peton, tells ESPN FC. “It doesn’t matter if it’s Barca, Atletico [Madrid] or [Real] Madrid. We go out to win in every stadium. Maybe reality will put us in our place, but our intention when we step on to the pitch is to win.”

Without Peton, who played for the club when he was younger and whose family are from the region, Huesca wouldn’t have earned promotion to the Primera Division for the first time in their history last season.

In 2006, with a return to the fourth division looming, he became concerned with how poorly the club was run. Working in television at the time, through Bahia International, now one of the leading player representative agencies in Spanish football, he took over the club. As well as being the CEO, he’s the president of the foundation which is the majority shareholder.

What followed has been remarkable: Huesca won a relegation playoff, dodging the bullet which would have dropped them back into the fourth tier, and soon returned to the second division. There was the low of another brief spell in the third division but two promotions in the last four years has seen them become them the 63rd team to enrol among Spain’s elite.

As much as the on-field success, though, it’s the work off the pitch which Peton purrs about. When he arrived the club needed €400,000 a year to run. They were doing it on €100,000. Things had to change. And they did. The club are running on a budget of around €20 million this season — and will turn over more than that.

“The financial control at the club couldn’t be any healthier now and it’s used as an example to follow by the LFP [the Spanish league] and the Tax Office,” he says. “The phenomenon of Huesca is studied in universities. The Business School in Madrid’s work this year will be on Huesca and how we operate on a financial level as a sporting institution.”

Peton explains how Huesca counter being a small town of 52,000 by appealing to the wider Alto Aragon region, where there are 215,000 people. The club’s reserve team, for example, play in Teruel, 240km to the south. Another key has been making sure the right people are involved. Whether that’s the president, Agustin Lasaosa, or the sporting director, Emilio Vega, who are both ex-players. You have to fit a certain type of profile to fit in at Huesca.

“When there are people that don’t understand that this is a club of love, values, generosity and openness, they have to leave,” Peton states. “On occasions, there have been some unpleasant moments telling someone ‘You don’t understand this club, leave.’ That’s happened a couple of times.”

Someone who does understand the club is Alex Gallar. The forward’s Jamie Vardy-esque rise to the top has been even more rapid that Huesca’s. A third and fourth division player for the majority of his career, last season with Huesca, who he joined for €400,000, was his first in the second division. Now he’s in La Liga where he scored both goals on the opening day of the season in a 2-1 win at Eibar.

“I always remember that when I was playing in the fourth division, the players in the third division were practically stars for me,” Gallar, 26, tells ESPN FC. “And as I’ve moved up the leagues, I’ve always thought that the players in the leagues above me were much better. Now I’m in the best league in the world, playing against the best players in the world. The circle is complete, but now I want to stay here.”

The opening day win over Eibar was followed up with an equally impressive draw against Athletic Bilbao, coming from behind to draw 2-2 to leave them unbeaten so far this season. It’s an even more extraordinary start when you consider coach Rubi, who quit for Espanyol, had to be replaced by Leo Franco in the summer. Both games were played away from home as work is finished on their El Alcoraz home, too, where the capacity is being increased from 5,500 to over 7,000, so top-flight football has not graced Huesca yet.

Despite that, Gallar talks of a town gripped by the club’s success. There’s “huge amounts of affection” being shown by supporters on the streets who are desperate to talk about how excited they are to finally see their team rubbing shoulders with Barca and Madrid.

That relationship between the players and the fans reflects the values talked about by Peton, which extend to the club’s sponsor. Rather than plaster an Asian betting company or Middle-East airline over the front of their shirt, Huesca carry the local council’s slogan: “Huesca, la magia.” It’s a motto used to promote tourism in the area, where winter sports are a huge draw with the Pyrenees on the doorstep.

“The local council spoke with the Chamber of Commerce, who have done a study into what the return of their sponsorship is, commercially, and the data says that their return is 350 percent,” Peton says of the agreement. “For every €1 they put in, they get €350 back. It’s a genuinely outrageous [amount].”

But values and good manners can only take you so far. Eibar and Girona have shown that staying in La Liga is achievable but competing with Barcelona is not as easy — as Huesca found out when, in a 2014 Copa del Rey meeting, their only previous trip to Camp Nou, they were beaten 8-1, losing 12-1 on aggregate.

A lot has changed in the last four years, mind.

“We have a lot of confidence in what we are doing,” Gallar says. “The first two games [in La Liga] have given us a lot of confidence and have made the team believe we can beat anyone.

“We go to Camp Nou knowing how difficult it is, knowing where we’re going, but that’s another motivation for us. This team grows on the big occasions and I think we have shown that [against Eibar] and at San Mames. I think we can damage Barca with what we have, knowing that they have to have an off day and we have to have a really good one.”