Little Eibar have been a Primera Liga success story in recent seasons, with their 7,000-seater ground making them the smallest ever club to play Spanish top-flight football. Even more impressively, the Basques from a town of 27,000 have maintained their status and sit seventh on the cusp of a European spot.
Eibar’s status as Spain’s tiniest top-flight team is likely to be under threat next season, though. SD Huesca are five points clear at the top of the second division. The team, from a city 500 metres above sea level by the Pyrenees 70 kilometres north of Zaragoza, have never played top division before and have spent more time in the regional fourth tier than any other.
Huesca’s El Alcoraz home, which is surrounded by fields on the edge of the small but perfectly formed cathedral city, seats only 5,500 – enough to handle their 3,600 average crowds last term. A tiny 308 seat extension to the main stand is underway.
Crowds are up this year, with a high of 4,800 for the derby game against Real Zaragoza – not that Zaragoza fans have ever looked at Huesca as a rival. Now, Huesca are above them and are the top team in Aragon.
But how can a club with the smallest budget in Spain’s 24-team second tier be clear at the top of the league?
"Huesca use young [and cheaper] players,” explains Manolo Marquez, who started this season as Las Palmas manager and went to see Huesca’s latest victory. “Their coach Rubi has Huesca playing like the old style Barcelona with a dynamic 4-3-3 system.”
Huesca, who were founded by Barca supporters, wear the Catalan club’s colours.
“They have a great spirit, they work hard for each other and they have talent,” Marquez states. “They are methodical, they have control of games. I think they’ll get promoted.”
Rubi, 48, is a Catalan former lower-league player who worked his way up as a manager starting in 2002. He had a successful season with Girona in 2012/13 and led them to a best ever finish and the Primera Liga play-offs.
That brought him to the attention of Barcelona, where he joined Tito Vilanova’s staff, charged with coaching and scouting the opposition – something Vilanova and Jose Mourinho had done before then.
However, Rubi always wanted to be a manager and joined Valladolid before difficult spells in the top-flight with Levante and Sporting Gijon.
Huesca work closely with football agency Bahia International. One of their main men is Jose Antonio Martin Otin 'Peton', a former Huesca player, writer and journalist who became an agent who represented Fernando Torres among others.
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Huesca was long a football backwater, a place for players to wind down or get back on track. Former Arsenal star Fran Merida went there in 2015.
"Huesca was the best place for me," Merida told The National. "I wasn't looking for money. I'm not a guy who spends a lot. I bought a car in 2009 and I still have the same car. I bought a flat near Barcelona, too, but I'm not a guy who goes to Las Vegas or Miami and spends a lot of money.
"I just wanted to play a good level of football every week with a friendly club. I wanted to focus on football and family and when you do that things improve. At Huesca, I did that. I played in a winning team which won promotion to the second division.”
Merida left for Osasuna, a far bigger club, yet they were relegated and Huesca are clear of them, too.
“They have excellent movement, work hard for each other and play very entertaining football,” explains Marquez, who counts Rubi as a friend. “The experienced midfielder [Juan ] Aguilera is like Sergio Busquets in their midfield. [Gonzalo] Melero alongside him was in Real Madrid’s academy.”
Goalkeeper Alex Remiro, 22, came from Athletic Bilbao, while 18-year-old Colombian striker Cucho Hernandez is on loan from Watford. He is one to watch for the future.
Venezuelan winger Alexander Gonzalez is thriving in his third season at the club, easily swapping with David Ferreiro on the other wing, while Portuguese central defender Jair Amador is a rock at the back, despite only making his full professional debut at the age of 26.
Huesca’s budget maybe low, but as Leganes showed in 2016 when they were promoted with a budget of only €4.3 million (Dh19.5m), that need not be a hindrance to reaching Spain’s top-flight for the very first time.
Temperatures have regularly been sub-zero in Huesca recently, but the team which reached the Primera Liga play-offs for the first time last season are keeping their fans warm with win after win. They are unbeaten at home all season, unbeaten in 10 in all games and seven points clear at the top of the table after 26 games.
A tough away match at Valladolid, who knocked them out of the Copa del Rey, is next up on Friday night. Interest is high and the game will be on national television.
It is time more people took notice of the minnows Huesca, who are outswimming far bigger fish at the moment.