Nelson Valdez's herculean effort
BARCELONA, Spain -- Before the seismic events at the Camp Nou on Saturday, it's possible that the names Hercules and Nelson only conjured up images of Greek mythology, U.S. Air Force bombers and a historic British admiral who defeated Napoleon at the Battle of the Nile.
No longer. A dopey, jet-lagged and perhaps cocky Barcelona side was humiliated by Hercules. The little outfit from the tourism town of Alicante turned in one of the biggest upsets in La Liga, thanks to two breakaway goals by Nelson Valdez. (It could have been worse for Barca if David Trezeguet had found the back of the net on what was a sitter in front of goal.)
The sound heard as Valdez's second goal bulged the Barca net was not simply the stunned visiting fans -- or the Real Madrid supporters who love to see the Catalans humiliated -- but the football romantics, too.
Valdez has had to drag himself off the pavement -- literally -- to now enjoy the penthouse lifestyle of the Primera division. In these days of supersized contracts for superstar athletes, you can easily forget that sport isn't only about what you receive for achieving excellence on the field but often about how much you are willing to sacrifice to get there.
So it was with Valdez.
At 15, he was offered a contract by Atletico Tembetary in Ypane, Paraguay. But the club neglected to tell the young striker two things: that his contract didn't cover accommodations and that his pay was so low that he couldn't afford to even rent a single room.
"We grew up in poverty in my family, but even I wasn't ready for what happened when I signed for Atletico," Valdez told me.
"Four or five promising kids arrived and we were so short of money that we had to sleep on the pavement at the side of the main stand of the stadium. It was frightening, undignified and a horrible experience for anyone. The lack of money meant that I slept outdoors for nearly two years.
"[But] I didn't tell my parents what was going on," Valdez said. "Growing up had been a tough experience, with my fiercest dream to get a ball of my own instead of playing with rolled-up paper, cloth or socks."
Valdez's perseverance and work ethic eventually earned him a chance to play in the Bundesliga -- first with the Werder Bremen reserves in 2001, then with the regular team from 2002-06. Then, after a stint with Borussia Dortmund, he joined Hercules this year.
The Paraguayan might have achieved his dreams, but he hasn't forgotten his roots, either. He invests in his hometown community, donating thousands of dollars to health, education and social services. At Christmas time, he funds a massive gift-giving party for the town's children.
Of course, Valdez provided fans with a gift you can't put a price tag on -- two goals against one of the biggest clubs in the world. In the wake of the upset heard around the football world, questions were raised about whether success has made Barcelona too complacent. It's not the type of question anyone will be asking Nelson Valdez anytime soon.
AGAINST THE ODDS
La Liga has no shortage of players of Valdez's ilk, footballers who either have overcome challenges or who use personal tragedy as inspiration.
Thanks to Valdez, Lionel Messi was on the losing side Saturday. But the world's best player has also suffered in order to thrive. It's well known that the Argentine was diagnosed with a growth-hormone deficiency and for four years took nightly hormone injections. Eventually, Barcelona paid the monthly bills, but before that his family had to scramble to pay the bills and a 9-year-old Messi insisted on injecting himself.
"Everybody finds such injections painful," Messi told me. "But all I can say is that I couldn't let myself feel the pain."
Messi's brother, Matias, said: "Leo would prepare the process, load the syringe and inject it himself. It was tough for the family even though he never made a fuss about it. But you knew that each night before he could go to sleep he had to go through this process."
David Villa's father was a miner in Asturias (which is why Villa has been so vocal in his support for the trapped workers in Chile) and took the fledgling young striker underground in a warning that "You mustn't let this be your life," Villa said. As a 5-year-old, Villa had been so obsessed with soccer that he kept practicing his skills even after he suffered a broken leg and was forced to play in a plaster cast. But when his father thought that Villa's desire for the sport was waning, he took his son on the dark, dangerous trip underground. Now look at Villa.
Edmilson -- who won a World Cup with Brazil in 2002 and a Champions League trophy with Barcelona in 2006, and who hit a stunning goal for Zaragoza over the weekend -- was an alcoholic as a teenager. "My father also struggled with alcohol problems all his life," Edmilson said. "And when I picked oranges with him, the crop owner used to reward us with strong rum. I lived like a delinquent, and only finding religion saved my life."
Real Madrid legend Raul comes from a family so poor that his first playing pitch was scattered with broken glass. He left Atletico Madrid's youth system to join the club's hated neighbors because Atletico refused to pay his father around €100 to fix his broken-down car.
Want more Graham Hunter? Check out his work on all things Spanish football. Zidane -- the diplomat • Clasico madness is coming • The Other Fernando • Barca best of all time • Pep's labor of love • Giuseppe Rossi in fine form • Write off Ronaldo? • Nadal saves Mallorca • Valdez's Herculean effort • The Special One is no Harry Potter
Less fortunate was Atletico Madrid Diego Forlan's sister, Alejandra, whose car crash killed her boyfriend and left her in intensive care for five months. At the time, the 13-year-old Forlan was a promising tennis player. But he hung up his racquet and decided to dedicate himself to soccer. As Forlan told the Spanish daily Marca, he had one message for his sister: "I will support you by becoming a big football star."
Graham Hunter is a freelance writer for ESPN.com who specializes in La Liga and the Spanish national team.