In the fall of 2007, I decided that I wanted to study abroad. The rationale was simple: I was running out of classes to take at the University of Missouri, and also, I could get away with it. Seemed logical enough at the time.
I decided that I’d go to Spain, and the study abroad office at Mizzou gave me a few options. I took the brochures home, studied the pictures intently, and then did what seemed right.
I Googled to see which of these places had the best soccer teams.
I settled upon Alicante, a sprawling seaside city just south of Valencia. They had miles of beaches, a busy bar district and, most importantly, two soccer teams. The first was Alicante CF, a third division team that made a remarkable run that spring and was promoted to the second division. (1) The other was second division Hercules CF, my team of choice, with a color scheme of royal blue and French’s mustard yellow, and a large Greek bust as their crest.
I’d be lying if I said Hercules was an great team that year. They were bums. But they were my bums, and I loved them for it. They were just good enough to avoid being sent down to third division, and just bad enough to stay well clear of the promotional zone. (2) I went to games, I cheered, and I even bought a scarf from a street vendor. I’d have bought a jersey, too, but Hercules wasn’t good enough to have a team store. I’d have gone beer for beer with Hercules fans, but Hercules had neither fans nor beer. (3)
This was not a team that featured many star athletes. Some teams put their best players on posters. Hercules put Jesus.
Jesus can save, I suppose, but he can’t score. That’s why the year I studied abroad, Hercules finished in sixth place in the second division, almost entirely on the strength of star midfielder Tote. Tote carried the team again in 2008-9, when the team finished fourth, just points away from promotion to La Liga.
This seemed alright with me. Hercules were bums, and I felt that they belonged somewhere right in the middle of second division. In a way, their continued mediocrity reminded me that the city I’d studied abroad in hadn’t gotten too big for its own good.
But then this season, the breakthrough came. I checked the box scores and the post-game reports weekly. I watched as Hercules got out far ahead of the pack, seven points clear of the third place team in the second division. Tote and the boys were a lock to advance to La Liga. But I also watched as that lead disappeared, as Hercules’ new fans panicked and called for the coach’s head.
Alicante, it seemed, would be spared success in the end.
And then, with two weeks to go in the season, my bums got a break. The two teams ahead of them choked; Hercules, meanwhile, got an 87th minute goal and a 2-1 win. In the last game, all Hercules needed to do was beat Real Union, the second-worst team in second division. Win, and Hercules was headed to La Liga. But, I reminded myself, the game was on the road, and besides, this was Hercules. I prepared myself for humiliation.
And then they won.
I don’t know how long it will last — the last time Hercules made La Liga, in 1996, they were sent back down at season’s end. But I do know that next season, Real Madrid and Barcelona, among others, will come to Alicante, Spain, to play. And a team that was lucky to draw a few thousand fans two years ago will be playing in front of a packed house.
I’m not sure how I feel about this yet. I fell in love with a group of bums. But now that they’re in La Liga, they’re heroes. Their fans might be able to buy overpriced Hercules gear in an actual team store, or use bathrooms that have actual working sinks. Their games might actually be broadcast on American ESPN. People might actually expect them to win. It will be different. Not better, necessarily, but different.
It was easy to love them as some second-division bums who nobody had ever heard of. It was easy to root for them because I didn’t have to take them too seriously.
But now that they’re champions? Now that Leo Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo will be coming to town? It’s all becoming real. I’m suddenly forced to make a decision: do I take my level of fandom up a notch? I root for the Terps, the Caps, the Nats and the Tigers. Do I start really rooting for Hercules too?
It was all so much easier when they were just bums.
- They were promptly and harshly sent back down the following season due to an unfortunate tendency to lose games. ↩
- In Spain, the top teams play in a division called La Liga, or The League. Anyone outside La Liga is irrelevant. ↩
- Their stadium, Estadio Rico Perez, had two bathrooms and one concession stand, which sold non-alcoholic beer, potato chips and soda. ↩