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Surprise package Girona shaking up La Liga

Updated: 2023-11-29 09:12
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Girona's Uruguayan forward Cristhian Stuani rises for a header during Monday night's Spanish league match against Athletic Bilbao at the Montilivi Stadium in Girona on Monday. The match ended 1-1. AP

Minnow's remarkable rise catches Spanish soccer's powerhouses off-guard

Girona's chief executive isn't hiding his surprise.

At the start of the league season in August, Ignasi Mas-Baga was hoping his team could avoid a costly relegation from Spanish soccer's top tier that would badly damage the club's growth plans for years.

Few people are more pleased — and genuinely shocked — than Mas-Baga to see the team from the northeast corner of Spain leading the standings ahead of powerhouses Real Madrid and Barcelona one-third of the way through the season. Girona entered the latest round as the outright leader before Madrid moved top on Sunday.

The surprise package failed to return to the top of La Liga on Monday after it was held to a 1-1 draw at home to Athletic Bilbao. Girona trails Real Madrid on goal difference after dropping points for just the third time this season.

First or second place, it's still a dream for Girona.

"The goal was non-relegation. That has been the target since we arrived," Mas-Baga told The Associated Press at Girona's training ground with the snow-capped Pyrenees in the distance.

"Leading the table is like a dream for us. But it's not an obsession. The focus is long-term stability."

Two years after Mas-Baga became its CEO after the club had gone through bankruptcy, Girona hit the jackpot not once but twice in the summer of 2017.

Just weeks after it was promoted to Spain's top flight for the first time in 87 years, the modest club was acquired jointly by Manchester City's Abu Dhabi ownership and by Pere Guardiola, the brother of City coach Pep Guardiola. In 2020 American-Bolivian businessman Marcelo Claure bought out a part of Pere Guardiola's share. Now City Football Group holds 47 percent of the club, Claure 35 percent and Pere Guardiola 16 percent.

Even though Girona benefits from being one of 13 clubs invested in by the City Football Group, its team has no big stars and even soccer fans in Spain are just now getting to know many of its players. Much of the credit for its stunning season so far, Mas-Baga said, goes to coach Michel Sanchez and sports director Quique Carcel. They have turned Girona into the sensation of European soccer after 11 wins in 13 rounds.

Girona, like every Spanish league team, has a strict spending cap on salaries based on the revenues generated and debts held by the club itself, not on the assets held by its owners. This season Girona has a spending cap for salaries of around 50 million euros ($55 million), which is only the 13th biggest in the 20-team league with the list topped by Madrid at 727 million euros ($795 million).

But Girona can benefit from being part of the City Football Group network, which besides last year's Champions League winners also includes Italian club Palermo, MLS club New York City FC, and clubs from around the world, including Brazil, Uruguay, Japan, China and Australia.

Girona has two players on its squad who belong to other City Football Group clubs: rightback Yan Couto (on loan from Man City) and winger Savio (on loan from French club Troyes). Both are excelling.

The advantages of the group extend to tapping into its extensive database of scouting reports on players, but also the sharing of marketing strategies and industry knowledge.

And most importantly for Mas-Baga is the financial backing to let Girona embark on major investments for its future like the training center it is planning to build and the remodeling of its 14,600-seat Montilivi Stadium.

"Being part of City Football Group gives us an opportunity in terms of know-how exchange and also opportunities to look for potential players that can come here on loan," Mas-Baga said. "It allows us to have a more global vision, but always keeping in mind that we run the club locally from Girona."

Second chances

Girona has become a home for players making the most of second opportunities.

Take Aleix Garcia, who joined Man City as a teenager, only to soon be loaned out to Girona. Now permanently at the club, Garcia became the first Girona player to debut for Spain's national team this month.

Barcelona players Eric Garcia and Pablo Torre came on loan this summer — with Girona not seen as a title rival — when former Manchester United and 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 conflict with Russia. With his seven goals, Dovbyk spearheads an attack that has two gears. It can either attack with the speed of Savio, Tsygankov and Ivan Martin, or via the long-ball game with Garcia.

One rule for coach Michel is avoiding what he calls "silly passes", those short back-and-forth exchanges in midfield that can sometimes seem pointless.

Financial cloud

Mas-Baga said that he is not concerned about the possible reprimand Manchester City is facing for allegedly violating financial regulations in England.

Nor he is 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.

Mas-Baga cited the precedents of two clubs of the same ownership playing in UEFA competitions. In June 2017, after an investigation into Red Bull's ownership of Leipzig and Salzburg, UEFA let both clubs enter the next Champions League. Other similar cases have followed.

Cashing in

Girona has a big game on Dec 10 when it heads two hours south to face another Catalan club, Barcelona, the team that has fans all over the world and is something close to a religion for many in Catalonia. The streets of Girona, a well-off city of 100,000, are slowly seeing more of its club's red-and-white jerseys where once there were mostly Barca's famous burgundy-and-blue.

While Michel and the players are dedicated to keeping their winning streak 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 ($44,000) in 2015, Girona expects to sell 1 million euros worth of shirts this season.

And that is not just in Spain.

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

Agencies via Xinhua

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