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 football’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 provisionally moved top Sunday. Girona can recover first place when it plays Athletic Bilbao on Monday.
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-Bagà 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-Bagà 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 per cent of the club, Claure 35 per cent and Pere Guardiola 16 per cent.
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 football fans in Spain are just now getting to know many of its players. Much of the credit for its stunning season so far, Mas-Bagà said, goes to coach Míchel Sánchez and sports director Quique Cárcel. They have turned Girona into the sensation of European football 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: right-back Yan Couto (on loan from Man City) and winger Sávio (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 important for Mas-Bagà is the financial backing to let Girona embark on major investments for its future like the training centre it is planning to build and the remodelling 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-Bagà said. “It allows us to have a more more global vision, but always keeping in mind that we run the club locally from Girona.”
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, García became the first Girona player to debut for Spain’s national team this month.
Barcelona players Éric García 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 López 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. With his seven goals, Dovbyk spearheads an attack that has two gears. It can either attack with the speed of Savio, Tsygankov and Iván Martín or through long passing buildups featuring García.
One rule for coach Míchel is avoiding what he calls “silly passes,” those short back-and-forth exchanges in midfield that appear to be just for the sake of passing.
Mas-Bagà said that he is not concerned about the possible reprimand Man City is facing for allegedly having violated 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-Bagà 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.
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 Barcelona’s famous burgundy-and-blue.
While Míchel and the players are dedicated to keeping their winning streak going over the coming weeks, Mas-Bagà’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.
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 shirts. But that’s happening now,” Mas-Bagà 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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