A new game, a new throne for Girona

Girona players celebrate after scoring against Artletico Madrid. Photo: PA

IN THOSE now sepia days of the 1960s and 1970s, Girona was renowned for being the airport that fed the Costa Brava with thousands of pale-skinned tourists heading for places like Lloret de Mar. The Spanish resort would also play host to football teams having a summer break and clubs like Chelsea and Liverpool took advantage of the free and easy atmosphere of these holiday playgrounds. In 1978, Liverpool – Kenny Dalglish and all – were present in Lloret just weeks after winning their second European Cup.

Barcelona – with Cruyff and Neeskens – were nearby but the local team, Girona FC, was playing in the newly-created Segunda División B, finishing sixth in 1977-78. Girona was a day trip away from Lloret, but nobody cared too much for medieval streets and architecture when there was Watney’s Red Barrel on tap at the “English pubs” of Lloret.

Girona has suddenly become a destination in its own right, and not just because there’s La Liga football for the first time ever in the Catalan city of 98,000 people. Girona is one of the many settings of Game of Thrones and as a result, has been attracting devotees of the popular fantasy series in their droves.

Furthermore, Girona has become something of a gastronomic paradise, with El Celler de Can Roca being voted the world’s best restaurant, not once but twice. It’s attracted the trendy hipster crowd, too, with craft coffee and beer landing in Spain, along with plenty of fashion-conscious men with sculpted beards. It really only needed a La Liga presence to add to its attraction.

But what of Girona FC? They were founded in 1930 and played in lower league football for decades. Before winning promotion in 2017, they fell at the play-off hurdles for three consecutive seasons. In the past few weeks, they have become the latest club to join the City Football Group, which brings with it a number of benefits, not least the possibility of borrowing Manchester City players to strengthen their own cause.

Five players have been loaned out this season: Pablo Maffeo, Aleix Garcia, Marlos Morena, Douglas Luiz and Olarenwaju Kayode. To a certain degree, Girona will become to City what Vitesse Arnhem have been for Chelsea, a place to loan out their younger players that have little chance of appearing in the first team.

One name provides all you need to know about why Girona appeared on the radar of City Football Group: Pere Guardiola, brother of Pep. Once regarded as being one of the most influential football agents in the game, Pere’s Girona Football Group has taken a 44.3% stake in the club, the same percentage that City Football Group have taken. Since Pep joined City as coach, Girona have benefitted from a number of loan deals.

The acquisition is City Football Group’s first foray in Europe but Girona become the sixth club the City has stakes in, a group that includes Australian side Melbourne City FC, MLS franchise New York City Football Club, Japanese side Yokohama F. Marinos, and Uruguay’s CA Torque.

Although the Gironan public will flock to the Montilivi stadium to see the likes of Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and others, the transaction does have a slightly uncomfortable feel about it – the further concentration of wealth in the European game. Girona will become a nursery in all but name for City.

Will the fans of the Blanquivermell mind too much? Doubtless they will enjoy the chance to see La Liga football in the 2,000 year-old city for the first time. They’ve started well, picking-up four points from two home games against Atletico Madrid (2-2) and Malaga (1-0), but by the end of September, following meetings with Bilbao, Sevilla and Barcelona, they will have a better idea of life in La Liga. It could have been a 100% record if Atletico hadn’t staged a late comeback after being two-down. They’ve yet to play away from the Montilivi, where the capacity has been increased and the pitch lowered to make way for advertising hoardings. An aggregate of 20,000 people have seen their two home games, a near-100% increase on last season’s average gate. That is still around one seventh of the average crowd at Real or Barca.

This underlines the massive gulf between Spain’s big two and the rest of La Liga. Marca recently revealed that the cost of their squads was higher than the rest of the league combined. Girona, with their sub-EUR 50m budget and band of loanees and low-cost players – 19 of their squad cost nothing – have a huge task in trying to survive.

Girona’s rise to the top appears to be part of a Europe-wide trend of smaller, unfancied and unlikely clubs rising to the premier level and enjoying a brief moment in the spotlight. In Germany, clubs like Ingolstadt and Darmstadt have risen to the top flight, while Italy have seen a succession of well organised and ambitious clubs – the latest being SPAL – that have worked their way through the ranks. Girona’s ascendancy, although now carrying some advantages through their association with City, is another interesting tale, although there is an underlying feeling that it also represents a worrying acquisitive appetite, the sort of behaviour that proved so disastrous in the financial industry.

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