They know near-all about their deeply hated rival, Barcelona. Atletico, another team capable of being a problem, pretty much lives in their backyard. But this time, Real Madrid are fighting an unknown entity. La Blanquivermells.
On Monday, I woke up in Barcelona, not more than ten minutes from the famous La Rambla. No, it was not a The Hangover-esque morning; I do remember arriving too, but not much was open in the depth of night. The morning was different, though.
It must not have taken more than five minutes on street level to notice a Barcelona shirt. Every other store sold them. To my surprise, other European top clubs were represented quite well too. Even Ronaldo and Benzema, the shirts of whichever Saudi clubs they now play for. But I was looking for something else. I thought it would probably be quite easy to find. But it was not.
For a brief period, I questioned whether I even knew what it looked like. The shirt of Girona. I did, but there had been none. Until I wandered into the local supermarket later in the evening, and into the candy aisle (where else?). There it was, the 37-year-old captain Cristhian Stuani looking straight at me on a box of crackers.
The team tied for the lead in La Liga at mid-season – with Real Madrid, no less – still flies under the radar. Just a 38-minute train ride north of Barcelona, you would expect Girona to be the darlings of Catalonia, chained to their sense of superiority. But it seems they do not care much, at least in Barcelona. Do they not believe? Are they not fans of fairytales?
Behind the scenes
They could hardly have seen it coming. In 93 years of history, Girona has only won the fourth (five times) and third tiers (once, in 2007/08); they did not experience La Liga before 2017 and were relegated a year later only to return in 2022. In three top-flight seasons, they have finished 10th, 18th, and 10th respectively. In the summer, their net spend was just 2 million euros. Nothing indicated the rapid surge.
Sure, being part of the City Football Group – the Abu Dhabi-led company behind Manchester City and 12 other clubs – helps. But not all of their teams are on the up, and as previously noted, the success of Girona is not down to financial opportunities. They may now have access to better resources, but making the most of it is another story altogether.
“The owners are football people. They have knowledge of the game and have built some really good projects,” Girona sporting director Quique Carcel told ESPN. “But decisions are made here 100%. The budget is marked by La Liga. We can’t exceed it and we have been working hard internally to reach where we are today, able to build a really competitive team on a humble budget.”
Trusting Michel has been a masterstroke as well. The 48-year-old, born and bred in Madrid, was a mediocre player who spent most of his career at Rayo Vallecano. He started coaching there too and got his big chance in 2017, but was sacked two years later. The same happened at Huesca, he was dismissed after one and a half years.
Nothing could predict his success, and indeed, not more than ten games into his tenure at Girona, there were those who wanted him out. The team had won just two of them. But the board trusted Michel and was rewarded with a promotion that same season. Maybe managers should not be sacked so hastily.
Michel prefers a fluid 4-4-2 formation but sometimes includes a fifth player in the back line. It is often difficult to pinpoint positions as their game is very flexible and offensive-minded with plenty of possession. But in the end, everything comes down to the players to deliver. Talk about a bunch of misfits …
There are the older heads. First-choice goalkeeper Paulo Gazzaniga (32), who was once second fiddle at Tottenham. Dutchman Daley Blind (33), who spent the previous six months in Munich only to play 130 minutes. Super-sub Stuani (37), who played for Middlesbrough in the Premier League (… feels like a century ago). Defensive anchor David Lopez (34), a stalwart for Espanyol previously.
There is also a wing-back called Yan Couto (21) on loan from Manchester City while the talented Savio (19) is owned by Ligue 2 club Troyes, another team part of the City Football Group. Midfield duo Aleix Garcia and Yangel Herrera, both 26, were once fancied by the CFG as well. Some might have even arrived on the train – centre-back Eric Garcia (23) and midfielder Pablo Torre (20) are on loan from Barcelona. Imagine that …
And then the two Ukrainians, both also in their prime at 26. Winger Viktor Tsyhankov arrived from Dynamo Kyiv last January, striker Artem Dovbyk from Dnipro-1 in the summer. Last season, he scored 24 in 30 in the Ukrainian Premier League, but what was once considered a pool of talent is now fighting to exist – sometimes literally – due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
As human beings, we tend to support our smaller, weaker counterparts. Everyone loved the Leicester City story; Girona, 21 games into the season, are making a similar point about everything being possible. The last time a club won their maiden La Liga title was in 1980/81, 43 years ago. Who knows how this one will end?
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Carcel: “Now, there are loads of kids on the streets in Girona shirts. Ten years ago, when I arrived, there were none. Everyone was in a Barca shirt.”
So you see – Girona does sell shirts too. This season, the projection foresees they should sell 13,000 of them before the season ends, which is a fairly reasonable amount.
When Lionel Messi moved from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain, 830,000 jerseys were sold. On the first day.
At the moment, I would prefer one of Artem Dovbyk’s.