The story of little Hercules and their hat-trick of Catalan conquests

Nelson Valdez

The name Hercules invokes connotations of insurmountable strength, applaudable ambition and adventure. However, for a Spanish football club who adopted the name in 1914, the age-old tales of triumph and heroism have been few and far between.

In Greek mythology, Hercules’ equivalent Heracles is known as God of sports, athletes and the strongest man on Earth. After just two La Liga seasons in the past 30 years, both of which ended in relegation, it’s safe to say Hercules CF have struggled to live up to their name.

In their defence, greatness has been pretty much reserved for Barcelona and Real Madrid. Between them, they have failed to win the title on only five occasions across those 30 years. They can only be defeated by an extraordinary, unexpected execution. A Herculean effort, you could say.

There is a story, believe it or not, that fits the narrative perfectly. They may not have slain a nine-headed Hydra or stole a herd of man-eating horses, but Hercules’ hat-trick of conquerings against Catalonia’s colossus were just as inconceivable.

Start of the story

The story begins in 1996-97, a groundbreaking season for La Liga for many reasons. The introduction of the Bosman ruling amid the steep ascent of television money led to the arrival of Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Roberto Carlos alongside many other greats in Spain, but most importantly (for this subplot at least), Hercules were back in the mix for the first time in over a decade.

After opening their campaign with a 2-1 home win over fellow newcomers CF Extremadura, Los Herculanos picked up just two points in their next 12 matches as they plunged to the foot of the table.

Seven points from their next three games at Estadio Jose Rico Perez brought some hope to the home faithful. But still, as January loomed, they remained hopeless and without a single point on the road from nine outings.

Up next, a trip to Camp Nou to face Barcelona, or Ronaldodependencia, as they had become known in the months prior.

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READ: A tribute to Barcelona-era Ronaldo and his *other* hat-trick v Valencia

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Despite scoring 13 in his first 11 La Liga games, El Fenomeno was undergoing something of a drought as Hercules came to town. But as he doubled Barca’s lead on the quarter-hour mark, any hope of a surprise was seemingly already erased as Sir Bobby Robson’s men looked set to top the table for the first time since November.

Even when a floated free-kick was nodded into the path of centre-back Dubravko Pavlicic to head home for Hercules, celebrations were consolation-esque with the game just 32 minutes old. The hosts would surely score again.

Ten minutes later came a trademark Barcelona move. Intricate, incisive passing, irrepressible movement and an inspired finish to match. It was a Hercules equaliser, crafted with artistry that astounded the home support, and it left Vitor Baia stood bemused in the Barca goal.

The almighty Herculanos, fresh from an impressive first-half fightback, came out firing in the second half. Stunned silence, Robson’s concealed rage, and Baia’s bewildered, boiling stare arose once more as Eduardo Rodriguez danced through the defence all on his own to put the visitors ahead.

The game ended 3-2. And some 300 miles down the east coast of Spain, fans lined the streets to commemorate their heroes, their immortals, their Hercules in the light of their most noble conquest.

Repeating the feat

The whole of Alicante was behind them, but as they slumped further adrift of safety with the Catalan giants ravenous for revenge four months on, no one anticipated them to repeat a feat so remarkable at their home ground.

But May 31, 1997 was a day of deja vus. With the hosts again in hapless form, Sir Bobby’s Barca buoyant at the prospect of overtaking Real Madrid at the top, and Luis Enrique scoring a very, very early goal, failure seemed unfathomable for Barcelona.

Only that Herculean spirit could reverse such confidence in the final result. Either that, or that Barca style of play.

Two seamless passing sequences down the left, and then the right, sent the Barcelona full-backs spinning either side of half-time. The square passes, and the subsequent shots were both equally sumptuous, and to the amazement of the same culprits of some sensational Hercules play, they had saved their brilliant but all too infrequent best for Barcelona again. They were going down, but in that moment, it didn’t matter one bit.

With two wins from their remaining two fixtures leaving Robson’s men two points behind Real, it was their only home loss and that unforeseen defeat at Estadio Jose Rico Perez that proved to be the difference.

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READ: The story of Capello, Suker, Mijatovic & the Real Madrid team of 96-97

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Hat-trick of triumphs

With Hercules down, the chance to avenge their embarrassment wouldn’t come for almost 14 years, when Los Griegos would make their top-flight return.

It wouldn’t take long for the two to face off. With former Barca midfielder Esteban Vigo at the helm, Hercules ventured to Camp Nou for their first away game of the season, boasting the likes of David Trezeguet and Nelson Valdez in their ranks but with equally little hope upon arrival.

By 2010, Barcelona had swapped Sir Bobby for Pep, Ronaldo for Messi and Enrique for Iniesta. Oh, and second place for first on the back two successive title-winning seasons.

The chasm was still colossal, the quest insurmountable. But if history has taught us anything, it is to not nonchalantly throw Barca into an accumulator against Hercules at 1/10.

And sure enough, after scraping through the early exchanges, Los Herculanos took the lead on 26 minutes after the aforementioned Valdez bundled home Royston Drenthe’s free-kick.

Yet again, it was an uncharacteristic but simply unstoppable move that brought Hercules, and Valdez, a second and only goal after half time. Guardiola’s masterpiece and Barca’s otherwise breathtaking best had been beaten in three consecutive encounters by the Alicante club.

Yes, Hercules were relegated once more as Barcelona went on to win their third straight title. But for their second successive season in the top-flight, Hercules were the only team to go to Camp Nou and serve their far superiors with defeat.

Was it a nine-headed Hydra? I hear you ask. Of course not. It was an eleven-headed oddity that had already in 1996-97 (namely Ronaldo) and continued to in 2010-11 (namely Messi), break records beyond belief.

Two La Liga seasons in the past three decades isn’t much to show for a team who were once a regular top-flight fixture. But courtesy of the battle, the bravery and the beautiful football on display when Barcelona are the obstacle, Los Herculanos have an extraordinary tale to tell.

By Brad Jones

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