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Column: After Huesca rises to Spain’s top league, the small-town club looks to stay there

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Huesca teammates, including Cucho Hernandez (9), celebrate after scoring a goal.
(Huesca)

When SD Huesca beat long odds and 20 other teams in Spain’s second division to win promotion to La Liga last spring, people throughout the country were asking themselves the same question:

Huesca has a soccer team?

Though it may have been a well-kept secret, the tiny city in northern Spain has actually had a professional soccer team for much of the last 100 years. It’s just never been very good, spending all but eight of the last 58 years playing in the third and fourth tiers of Spanish soccer.

This season has been its first in the top division and the results have been predictable. In the third game, playing in the 99,000-seat Camp Nou, a stadium large enough to accommodate roughly twice the 52,000 people of Huesca, the team was blitzed by Barcelona 8-2, starting a 15-game slide in which it collected just four of a possible 45 points.

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In Huesca, a quiet farming community in the shadow of the Sierra de Guara mountains known for its 13th century churches, that wasn’t exactly a cause for celebration. But it wasn’t met with sadness either.

“This is a year to enjoy,” team president Agustin Lasaosa, 60, who played with the team through some of its darkest years in the 1970s and ’80s, said in a phone interview. “Our fans, our audience can have a good time.

“Every 15 days, there is a party, and this affects not only the economy of the club but also the economy of the province. The fact that you are calling me from Los Angeles indicates that the growth of Huesca has earned the interest of the whole world to see this phenomenon: a very small team in the best league in the world.”

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That economic push will never be big enough to allow Huesca — or any other team in La Liga, the most unequal of Europe’s top leagues — to challenge the dominance of Barcelona or Real Madrid, who both have been valued at more than $4 billion by Forbes and have combined to win 13 of the last 14 Spanish championships.

“Our budget is about $35 million. Real Madrid and Barca’s budget is about $800 million,” said Carlos Garcia Pont, vice president of Espanyol, which has played more than 80 seasons in the first division without winning a title. “La Liga is not designed like the NBA, where anybody can win.

“La Liga is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The ones that win make a lot more money than the others.”

And teams that are playing in the first division for the first time make a lot less. But for Huesca, things are getting better.

A little more than a decade ago, when it was in danger of falling to the fourth tier, the team said it had a budget of about $113,000. This year it will spend more than $23 million. That’s $10 million less than Barcelona will pay Lionel Messi this season.

The team’s rise, both financially and competitively, coincided with the reunion of Lasaosa and Jose Antonio Martin Otin, another former Huesca player better known as Peton, who reunited as members of the team’s management. Two seasons later, Huesca had clawed its way to the second division for the first time.

For a team with a shoestring budget and a 7,600-seat stadium that would embarrass some high school football teams, that climb felt like getting to Everest’s summit. But Lasaosa and Peton knew there was a higher peak within reach.

“People did not believe that we could ever reach the best soccer league in the world,” Lasaosa said in Spanish. “It can be done and why not the Huescas and other small teams? As long as you have a sane economic policy — the economic flag is fundamental — you can have good players.”

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Huesca’s success is being touted as a model by La Liga and has been studied in universities, including the highly regarded Business School in Madrid.

Now that Huesca has proved it can make it to La Liga, Lasaosa is doing what he can to try to keep it there. In the winter transfer window, with the team languishing at the bottom of the standings, he spent more than $4.5 million to bring in forward Enric Gallego and left back Javi Galan, who headed a wave of reinforcements.

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Team president Agustin Lasaosa greets a Huesca player on the pitch.
(Huesca)

Huesca responded with its best streak of the season, one that saw it lose just one of six games to move within a point of escaping the cellar. Saturday’s home loss to Alaves — its second consecutive defeat — stalled that progress. But Lasaosa, his team four points from safety heading into Sunday, is hopeful the team can make one final assault at avoiding relegation despite a schedule that includes dates with Barcelona and Real Madrid over the final 10 weeks.

“There’s an illusion that you live in the first division,” he said. “Mathematically, the club still has the possibility of staying and, more importantly, the attitude around the team is fantastic. We’ve been getting good results and while it’s true we have a deficit to make up, there’s still time.”

After all, the team has already defied logic and the odds to get this far. Only a fool would bet against them now — and, so far, Lasaosa hasn’t found anyone eager to take that wager.

“There is absolutely nobody, whether in the public or in Spanish journalism, that has given Huesca up for dead,” he said with satisfaction. “Huesca is still very much alive.”

kevin.baxter@latimes.com | Twitter: @kbaxter11

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