This is the story of a single mother and her two sons.
They spent the late ‘90s moving around southern Europe to accommodate the father’s professional footballing dream. Though he had natural gifts — as a 6’3” center half, he commanded the air and provided a target for set pieces, even against the likes of Real Madrid — he never had the quality to carve out a permanent spot in a top flight side.
Born in the university town of Tours, France, the father grew up playing football for youth sides in a region best known for cathedrals and chateaux. He joined Toulouse at 19, and after a stint at Sochaux, he earned his dream move to Olympique Marseille at the age of 26 in 1995. Though l’OM had dominated Ligue 1 from 1988 to 1992, the club had a shady reputation. After getting the job in 1986, club president Bernard Tapie went full-on Gatsby. He bought Adidas, owned the cycling team that repeatedly won the Tour de France and splashed cash on France’s best players for l’OM. Through it all, he threw lavish parties for France’s rich and famous — including his squad — on his yacht Phocea.
During one such party on the Riviera in 1993 — four days before l’OM were to play a league match against Valenciennes and six days before they would travel to Milan for the Champions League final — Tapie realized that some of midfielder Jean-Jacques Eydelie’s former teammates played for Valenciennes. They hatched a plan. Eydelie delivered an envelope of cash to one of the Valenciennes players’ wives. A couple of Valenciennes players agreed to throw the match and not injure any OM players. Marseille won both the league match against Valenciennes and the Champions League final. However, the scandal broke later that month, and French police eventually dug up ₣250,000 in one of the Valenciennes players’ gardens. L’OM were forcibly relegated to the second division for two years.
So it was under this cloud of corruption that the father arrived at Marseille. Didier Deschamps and Fabien Barthez — the youngest captain and keeper to ever win the Champions League, respectively — had both departed. The club’s classic white jerseys were tainted. Tapie was long gone, serving jail time. The father wasn’t quite good enough to play for a full-strength Marseille side, but it wasn’t as if the club had a ton of options.
He made 38 appearances in the ‘95-’96 campaign, helping the club to a runner-up finish in the second division, which secured promotion back to Ligue 1. This moment would mark the zenith of the father’s career. Marseille also marked a high point in his personal life, as his two sons were born. Nevertheless, after promotion, the club were back where they belonged. They could attract better talent and no longer needed his services. The father languished in the fourth division, relegated to playing with l’OM’s B team. Fast approaching 30, he realized he would need to look abroad for playing time and opportunity.
So the family would eventually pack up and move to Spain. The father’s nomadic career wound from the Gothic Old Town of Santiago de Compostela to the narrow streets and towering apartment blocks of working class Vallecas in Madrid. Even in Spain, his career existed on the fringes of the first and second divisions, his teams constantly embroiled in promotion and relegation dogfights. In 2000, Atlético Madrid — mired in Segunda — brought the father aboard, believing he could provide expertise in these battles. He made 14 appearances and shared a locker room with a young canterano named Fernando Torres, who would eventually share the pitch with one of his sons.
The father returned to Vallecas for one last go around in the ‘01-’02 season. During this final season, his priorities changed. After meeting actress and Spanish TV personality Sonia Moldes, he retired from football, abandoned his wife and young sons — aged five and six — got married, and took off for an extravagant honeymoon in Polynesia.
He never returned.
Later in their lives, both boys would stand accused of mistreatment of women. The older brother would be sentenced to community service after a domestic violence conviction, the younger accused of sexual assault (which was later dropped). If the allegations are true, nothing excuses their behavior. But their father certainly set a poor example, abandoning his wife and leaving his boys without a male role model.
With the father making off with most of their money, the mother struggled to support her two boys. Moreover, her two sons reminded her of her ex-husband at every turn, kicking a ball around every chance they got. With their father’s career driving every decision that the family made, it was only natural that football mattered to them. Their grandfather supported their endeavors, giving them advice, encouraging them to pursue the beautiful game, and doing his best to provide them with some sort of father figure. At nine years old, the older son joined the youth setup at Rayo Majadahonda, about 20 minutes west of Madrid. The younger son followed suit the next year. The mother, still in financial straits, drove them to training every single day. The boys clearly had talent, so Rayo Majadahonda gave them scholarships, making sure they could continue to play football.
It was the younger son who first caught the eye of the bigger clubs. When he was 10, his mother brought him for a trial at Atlético. The mother couldn’t afford a babysitter — and most of her family lived back in France — so she brought her older son along as well. While the coaches put the younger son through his paces, the older son kicked a ball around on the sidelines. The coaches loved how he played the ball and ended up signing both boys.
As they grew into teenagers, both sons shined in the academy. The boys’ coaches told their mother that they both could go far in football. They had skills, they had talent — they just had it. The mother began to realize that both of their boys could make something of football when she saw how much they sacrificed. They went to bed early, skipping out on typical teenaged rites of passage — socializing, nights out, trips with friends — to make sure they were ready to train. Effectively, they pushed all of their chips into the center of the table. It was football or bust.
Taking after his father, the older son — let’s call him “L” — began to play at center back. Blessed with rocket-fueled pace, the younger son — “T” for short — made the left back position his own, bombing up and down the flank. However, it was the L who people noticed. Players and coaches alike nicknamed him “Jefazo.” Big Boss. He was tall and strong. He had character. He had anticipation, that ever-important quality in center halves. And he was left-footed to boot. His coaches called him the most promising defender in the cantera, predicting that he would be better than Álvaro Dominguez, a fixture in the first team. To be fair, T was almost as impressive. But given the expectations L had set — and given the fact that his older brother often gave him advice — T was mostly known around the cantera as the Big Boss’s brother.
It was L who first broke into Atlético’s first team. After playing sparingly in his first season, he announced himself in the 2016 Champions League quarterfinal against European champions Barcelona. Thrust into the fire after injuries to players ahead of him, he started both legs alongside club legend Diego Godín, never once appearing out of his depth or in awe of the moment. He shined in the second leg in particular. In one of the final memorable nights at the Calderón, Atleti spent the majority of the second period pinned back in their own half, soaking up pressure as Barcelona pinged the ball around, waiting to strike. The older brother stood tall in the back, snuffing out chance after chance alongside Godín. After an Antoine Griezmann double, Atleti secured progression to the semifinals.
That summer, Pep Guardiola allegedly wanted L to move to Manchester, ready to offer him a key spot in his project at the Etihad. City were reportedly ready to pay his €20 million release clause. But L stayed. Why would he move? His brother was in Madrid. His mother was in Madrid. Atlético were his boyhood club. And Cholo Simeone had just displayed supreme confidence in him by playing him against Barça without a thought.
T found his path to the first team a bit trickier. In his late teens, he continued to shine as the B team’s undisputed best player. However, he was clearly ready for more. His older brother was competing against Neymar, Luis Suárez and Lionel Messi while he ran circles around overmatched chumps in Tercera. He was clearly ready for LaLiga. But Atleti were set at left back. Filipe Luís was playing at an all-world level, arguably the best on the planet. Cholo wasn’t about to displace the Brazilian in favor of an untested teenager.
The following season, T finally got his chance on loan at newly-promoted Alavés. He took it. Along with fellow loanee Marcos Llorente, he guided Alavés to mid-table safety. In the Copa Del Rey final, he scored a hell of a free kick. Left-footed, just like his older brother.
After the season, everyone wanted T. And he was ready to listen. Simeone had never given him a chance in the first team. He saw L struggling for playing time in the first team, despite his clear superiority to Stefan Savić, with whom Simeone (inexplicably) persisted. Cholo acknowledged that it was his fault that L didn’t play more, even calling him “incredible.” T didn’t want to suffer the same fate.
T had plenty of reasons to want to play for Atleti. Los colchoneros were his boyhood club. L still looked like a big part of the team’s plans. His girlfriend loved the club, referring to herself as “anti-madridista.” It seemed like he would just have to wait out Filipe, who was already on the wrong side of 30.
Armchair psychologists — such as myself — could have a field day with what he did next. Almost everything T had accomplished to that point in his footballing career had been in the context of his older brother. He wasn’t always his own player. He was somebody’s brother. And he had gotten a taste of what it felt like to be his own man at Alavés.
Ultimately, T is the only one who knows why he moved. He had allegedly been madridista as a kid before he joined Atleti’s youth setup. And when Real Madrid called in the summer, he didn’t think twice, disregarding the non-aggression pact between the two sides. Though Marcelo would be at least as much of a hinderance to T spot in the starting XI as Filipe, he persisted with the move. In all likelihood, he was ready to make Atleti pay for not giving him the shot he felt he deserved. He moved across the city in the summer of 2017.
Now, Lucas and Theo Hernández sit on opposite sides of a great divide. They contested their first derbi madrileño at the Wanda Metropolitano last November. Ironically, Lucas started the game at left back, the very position that was once likely earmarked for his younger brother. Theo never left the bench. If both brothers play this weekend, it will mark the first time they take the pitch on opposite sides.
Nevertheless, the rivalry doesn’t seem to have affected familial relations. Earlier this year at a Christmas dinner, Lucas had no qualms about poking fun at Theo for Madrid’s subpar league campaign:
Translation: “First, Merry Christmas. Second, Happy New Year. Third, I hope you get a lot of gifts.”
“And fourth? Fourth is Real Madrid.”
(The brothers also enjoy expressing their displeasure at each others’ Atleti/Real-themed birthday cakes.)
This sibling rivalry could develop even further. While Lucas was recently capped by France in a bit of a surprise decision, Theo — a French youth international — has indicated that he would be open to representing Spain. Both boys actually speak Spanish better than they speak French, although Lucas has stressed that he considers himself to be French.
For Py Laurence — the single mother who sacrificed so much to help her sons get where they wanted to go — the derbi isn’t stressful. It’s more a celebration of both her sacrifices and those of her two sons. All the parties they skipped, all their early nights in their adolescences. All the car rides out to Majadahonda, penniless, not knowing if her sons had a future in football or not. The boys had gone all-in, and that bet on themselves has paid off handsomely. Her sons are fulfilled professionally, living out their dreams.
Before the November 2017 derbi, Py became somewhat of a media darling, with multiple outlets wanting to know how she felt about the impending showdown between her two sons. She spoke with pride, hoping for a draw between the two sides and good performances from her two sons.
“When they go to the derbi I’ll tell them that I love them, that I hope everything that goes well and that they shouldn’t kick each other. Since it’s the first time they’re playing against each other, I should remind them to be careful with one other. It will be beautiful to see them play, and more than anything, I will be proud. It seems like I’m living a dream.”