Girona — the underdog riding on a controversial giant’s shoulders

Over the last few months in LaLiga, something truly exceptional — in the context of the Spanish premier division’s recent history — has been unfolding. 

A league dominated by Barcelona and Real Madrid since 2004-05 — Atletico Madrid is the only other team to have won the LaLiga title (2014, 2021) in this period — has seen the emergence of an underdog fighting above its weight class and threatening the contenders.

Turning heads

In just its fourth season in the top-flight, Girona is turning heads. Coach Michel Sanchez has a group with no stars competing at the very top of LaLiga with an attractive, free-scoring style.

Promoted via a playoff in 2021-22, Girona finished 10th last season, equalling its previous best performance, which came in 2017-18. But the manner in which it has started this season suggests that 10th will not remain its highest LaLiga finish. 

Such has been Girona’s quality that Barcelona, the Spanish league champion last season, has looked like the second-best team in the Catalonia region so far in 2023-24.

When the two sides met earlier this month at Barcelona’s temporary home, the Lluis Companys Olympic Stadium, it was Girona which played like a European giant. A 4-2 statement win, followed by a 3-0 victory over Deportivo Alaves, gave it sole possession of first place with the season nearing the halfway point.

Brewing something special: Coach Michel Sanchez has played down expectations of Girona mounting a title challenge, but acknowledged that the club is enjoying a historic season. | Photo credit: Getty Images

Coach Michel, however, was quick to play down expectations. “I think mathematically we have escaped demotion, which was the goal,” he said. “I don’t think we can keep up with Barcelona, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid and win the league. It’s not our objective. But we are very pleased. I think it’s good to recognise that we are making history, eh. I don’t know if we have the ability to win LaLiga, but this Girona side has a soul and believes it can beat any opponent.” 

Barcelona coach Xavi Hernandez was impressed with what he saw during his side’s stinging defeat. “It’s the best team I’ve seen play so far,” he said. “I like them because they’re brave, they’re not afraid. They’re a dynamic team, with a great coach, a system similar to ours, they want to have the ball, they want to be the protagonists — they put pressure on you.”

Owners under scrutiny

Girona’s sudden rise from obscurity has the makings of a heartwarming story — but there is one caveat. The club’s turnaround has occurred after Manchester City’s Abu Dhabi ownership purchased a major stake in it. The City Football Group’s operations have been the subject of criticism and scrutiny — the Premier League has charged Man City with more than 100 breaches of its financial rules following a four-year investigation. It also continues to face allegations of ‘sportswashing’.

Although one of 13 clubs invested in by the very wealthy City Football Group, Girona has a strict spending cap on salaries, like every other Spanish league team. This cap is based on the revenues generated and debts held by the club itself, not on the assets held by its owners. This season Girona’s salary cap is around 50 million euros, which is only the 13th biggest in the 20-team league, with the list topped by Madrid at 727 million euros.

Girona, however, enjoys other advantages of being part of the City Football Group network, which owns clubs from around the world, including Brazil, Uruguay, Japan, China and Australia. Girona has two players who belong to other City Football Group clubs: right-back Yan Couto (on loan from Man City) and winger Savio (on loan from French club Troyes). Both are excelling.

Making it count: Players looking to make the most of second chances, such as Espanyol veteran striker Cristhian Stuani, have flourished at Girona. | Photo credit: Getty Images

Making it count: Players looking to make the most of second chances, such as Espanyol veteran striker Cristhian Stuani, have flourished at Girona. | Photo credit: Getty Images

The perks extend to tapping into the group’s extensive database of scouting reports, as well as the sharing of strategies and industry knowledge. So while Girona this season is an underdog battling heavyweights, it is backed by a giant with ambitious plans.

The financial backing allows the club to embark on major investments for its future, such as the training centre it is planning to build and the remodelling of its 14,600-seat Montilivi Stadium.

Girona CEO Ignasi Mas-Baga sought to put a gentler spin on the club’s ambitions. “We want to be a club that is not divisive, that has a friendly face, and has a different approach to being close to supporters. The focus is long-term stability. We have a more global vision, but always keeping in mind that we run the club locally from Girona,” he said. 

The local, human touch

The local, ‘human’ touch has benefited players looking to make the most of second chances.

Take Aleix Garcia, who joined Man City as a teenager, only to soon be loaned out to Girona. Now permanently at the club, the midfielder became the first Girona player to debut for Spain’s national team. Barcelona players Eric Garcia and Pablo Torre came on loan this summer — with Girona not seen as a title rival — when former Ajax defender Daley Blind signed for the club. 

Espanyol veterans David Lopez and Cristhian Stuani have extended their careers here.

Striker Artem Dovbyk and forward Viktor Tsygankov have both arrived over the past year after leaving clubs in Ukraine following the invasion by Russia. Dovbyk spearheads an attack that has two gears. It can either attack with the speed of Savio, Tsygankov and Ivan Martin or through long-passing build-ups. 

Although Girona will not be able to shake off questions about its ownership, Mas-Baga said that he is not concerned about the possible reprimand Man City is facing in England. Nor is he troubled about the UEFA rule that says two teams of the same owner can’t play in the same competition. As of now, Girona and City would qualify for next season’s Champions League, creating a possible conflict that few realistically could have predicted.

While Michel and the players are dedicated to keeping their run going over the coming weeks, Mas-Baga’s job is to convert what he called this “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity for his club into a factor for future growth. So far, he said, things are looking good. From selling just 800 jerseys for a total of 40,000 euros in 2015, Girona expects to sell 1 million euros worth of shirts this season.

“We are also selling overseas, Japan, South America, in the States, all over the world. When we arrived, we couldn’t imagine people in Japan waiting over shirts. But that’s happening now,” Mas-Baga said. “And brands are knocking our doors, but we are also knocking on a lot of doors, because the opportunity is now.”

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