Girona: The Great Leap Forward

Girona, Spain. Compared to Barcelona’s vibrant beaches, this homely town offers serenity. Exquisite Catalan cuisine. The picturesque River Onyar. Timeless forts from the Roman Empire. And of course, tourists. It is no wonder HBO‘s Game of Thrones, co-signed Girona in the summer of 2015. The city’s cathedral was the backdrop to Margery Tyrell’s aborted walk of shame. But it was not just Jamie Lannister who stole the show here.


Arya Stark hid from The Faceless men in the city’s Arab Baths. Samwell Tarly, and his family, found their home at Sant Pere de Galligants (The Oldtown Citadel). Fast forward some years later, HBO has returned to film GOT’s prequel, the House of the Dragon. However, the Targaryen are no longer Girona’s main event.



Last Saturday, the city hosted Catalonia’s greatest club, FC Barcelona. It was another cold day in hell for Girona FC, who dealt their guests a severe spanking – as in the reverse fixture. Girona qualified for next season’s Champions League with this historic victory. Safe to say, we saw it coming. The Catalans had not lost a home game since Real Madrid beat them in September. But even Los Blancos suffered here last April – courtesy of Valentin Castellanos.


Girona’s Estadi Montilivi has seen its fair share of football madness. The club’s multipurpose-arena was upgraded to a modest 14,624-capacity for the season. Further renovations are expected ahead of hosting European football next season.


The Roots of Girona


The city of Girona is home to about 100,000 people – just a few thousand short of the proposed Spotify Camp Nou. Due to the city’s small standing in the region, Girona FC has remained a second-choice team.


Girona’s status was reaffirmed after 50% of the supporter base declared themselves Culers in a 2017 survey. It was clear to see – Girona was a hobby; Barcelona was a passion. Plus, Girona had never made it to the big leagues.



This Thing of Ours – City Football Group


City Football Group (CFG) needs no introduction – or very little at least. In 2016, Manchester City pulled Pep Guardiola from Bayern Munich. This seismic change caught the headlines in Catalonia for a couple of reasons. For Girona, it was a pleasant coincidence. The following year, Guardiola’s brother, Pere, pulled off his own heist. In the ensuing takeover, CFG acquired a majority stake in the club. The rest of the shares – about 44% – went to a Pere-led consortium known as the Girona Football Group.


August 2020: Inter Miami Founder, Marcelo Claure, joined the Girona hierarchy. The Bolivian tycoon currently owns 35% of the club. Despite the new flags in the fort, the takeover was milder than a conquest. Delfi Gelli, a former Academy player, was chosen to lead the new era as club president. Gelli came through the club’s youth ranks, before he left to play for Barcelona – where he met Pep Guardiola.


New era, new owners, new levels. That summer, Girona finally made it to Spain’s top-flight for the first time ever. In that campaign, Girona beat Zidane’s Real Madrid at the Montilivi.



Inferno, briefly – Relegation


After that magical year, the Blanquivermells ended up right where they started. Girona got relegated after finishing in 18th place the following season. Now they were back to square one, and there was only one way out. 87 years had passed before Girona earned their first promotion. This time, they returned to La Liga after only three seasons. How?


For one, the second-tier rat race was by no means pleasant. Thus, the management had no choice but to throw the sink at it. Out went Francisco, in came Míchel. Girona’s new coach was living on borrowed time, the management gave him a sole mission – earn promotion. Luckily, the Spaniard had little to lose; his last two stints – at Rayo Vallecano & Huesca – ended in relegation.


Despite a rocky season, Girona finished 6th & qualified for the playoffs. Míchel extended his contract with the Blanquivermells just as the stormy playoffs began. And the rest is history.



The Key


Since time immemorial, the coach has been the cornerstone of a football club. That is why – for better or for worse – several clubs stick to a certain coach until they can’t anymore. For Girona, Míchel is that guy. Not because he had ties to the club or city like most of the echelon; but because he was truely dedicated. As a Madrid native who spent his playing days at Rayo Vallecano, Míchel has learn to adapt to not just a foreign club but a foreign people.


Míchel never misses the chance to practice his Catalan with elderly neighbors in his day-to-day. But most importantly, he implements the region’s brand of football – a highly effective version at that. “This is the DNA,”– Pere Guardiola. There is no doubt that Míchel is a local celebrity; but he’s also garnering interest from around Europe. Girona owe a lot to Michel; the man is surely going places.


Meet the Crew


However, this whole camaraderie was not left to chance. Míchel is so good at Girona, because they have become one and the same. There’s no better proof of this theory than Girona’s brilliant recruitment.



It’s all simple really — the club attracts budding youngsters with the rare opportunity to play regular football. Rodrigo Riquelme is a success story of the Girona’s brilliant policy. Despite losing Riquelme to his parent club last summer, the club has become a hotspot for rising stars. Small stadium. Brilliant coach. Rising ballers. Girona has mastered the art of glory on a budget. The Montilivi dream is well and alive.


History on a Budget


Manchester City is a stellar example of what a proper war chest can do. However, La Liga is much unlike the Premier League. Going against Real’s £626m & Barca’s £232m with a meek £44m was quite tricky. Last January, Viktor Tsygankov arrived from Dynamo Kyiv in a bargain winter deal. This season, he chipped in 11 league goals & assists on the back of his stellar performances. But, it is Tsygankov’s compatriot who has stolen the headlines.


Artem Dovbyk joined Girona in the summer from DniPro-1 in a club-record €7.75m deal. Upon his arrival, Dovbyk was back-up to starting striker – Cristian Stuani, who currently boasts a club record of 127 goals. There was little Dovbyk could do. On the first matchday, Girona were down 1-0 at the Anoeta. It was certain defeat, until Dovbyk came off the bench to score the equalizer. That was a prelude of great things to come.



Stuani continued as Girona’s starting nine until the September international break. In Dovbyk’s first start, he got an assist against Granada. The Ukrainian then followed up with goals versus Mallorca & Villarreal in the following fixtures. After his goal & assist against Barca last week, Dovbyk is the current Pichichi; ahead of Jude Bellingham & Robert Lewandowski. There’s no doubt, he had a lot of help.


Girona players occupy top spots on the assists charts. Savio (9), Yan Couto (8), Miguel (6), Aleix Garcia (6), and Dovbyk (7) himself. But the best help has been from Girona’s second-choice striker. Stepping away from Girona’s spotlight has never been easy for a blooded veteran, but it has been fun for Stuani. Despite understandable cuts to his playing time, the Uruguayan continues to make headlines.


Braces against Getafe in La Liga; Orihuela & Rayo Vallecano in the Copa del Rey. Dying minute winners against Barcelona, Valencia & Real Betis. His season tally? 13 goals. Stuani is clearly Girona’s most effective personnel. Still on effectiveness, Michel’s tried & trusted defense might catch you by surprise. Last summer, Girona landed Daley Blind & Paulo Gazzaniga for free. The final piece of the puzzle was Eric Garcia’s loan switch from Barcelona, whilst youth product Antal Yaakobishvili has also been instrumental this season.



This defense of misfits has achieved a modest, yet effective, 9th place amongst La Liga’s best defenses — with 11 cleansheets so far. Girona’s backline strikes a perfect counterbalance to the rapid fire upfront. Michel’s men have scored the most goals (75) in the league this season. Having a sharpshooter like Dovbyk helps. But that’s only the finisher; Girona has a deep bag of tricky creators.


Savinho’, in particular, has become a fan favorite. The youngster overcame previous ill-fated spells at PSV & Troyes with a fresh start in Catalonia. Michel gave the Brazilian a free run and he went full throttle – 17 league goals & assists this season. Likewise, Miguel Gutiérrez, has made quite the name for himself. The boy-wonder from Real Madrid scored twice this season – Away at Barca & Home versus Barcelona.


Miguel’s thrives off his synergy with Yan Couto on the opposite flank. Both fullbacks have raked in 17 goals & assists between them. No doubt, Michel’s system was built to exploit their strengths. Aleix García can claim to be the cornerstone of that system – with no qualms. The Catalan midfielder came through Villarreal’s youth system before his dream move to Pellegrini’s Man City. From City, he was loaned to Girona at the beginning of the CFG era.



García has won popular trust as the club’s regular captain; his midfield genius has pulled the inevitable transfer buzz. Last summer, he was reunited with Iván Martín, a fellow Villareal Youth product. Both men have blossomed in the center of the park. Girona’s midfield duo have 17 goal contributions so far; but that’s not half the story.


For a club of its size, Girona’s bag gets deeper. After a 3 year hiatus, Portu returned to the medieval city with a banger. Last Saturday, he blasted Barca open with a wonder goal; his tally now stands at 12 g/a for the season. Putting Girona’s squad under the microscope, you can see how well-balanced the team is. And the best part is that it was all intentional. Even the kitman was scouted from Ukraine!


The Great Leap Forward


Gironistas can rest easy to tune of next season’s Champions League. Next weekend, Michel’s men will end the season against Villareal, at the Montilivi. Building on this season will take brains & guts; and that’s Girona’s niche.


By Ayomi

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Quality Sport Images / Getty Images