Girona FC: A Story of Romance or Financial Muscle-Flexing?

Girona has never been a place of pilgrimage for football fans and probably won’t be in the near future. However, the club has a story to tell and it is beginning to be heard, especially since a deal was struck with a modern financial superpower.

In August 2017, City Football Group (CFG), owned by Sheikh Mansour, bought a 44.3% share of Girona FC. Another 44.3% stake is owned by Girona Football Group (GFG), an agency led by Pere Guardiola (brother of Pep). Girona has since become an extension of an already hegemonic CFG franchise, with New York City FC and Melbourne City becoming two more acquisitions for the Abu Dhabi group in recent times.

But what are the implications of the CFG deal for Girona, and what does it mean for the future of the small Catalan club that has finally reached the big time?

Cynics would propose that this deal provides Manchester City with just another finishing school for their youth talent. Highly-rated players such as Pablo Maffeo and Aleix Garcia made the switch to Catalonia last summer. However, by virtue of defeating Villarreal 2-0 away from home on the 3rd March, Girona officially became La Liga’s most successful newly promoted team in history, reaching 40 points after 27 games. This momentous achievement embodies Girona’s ambition, and it would do the club an injustice to suggest that this desire for success derives solely from their new hierarchy.

Girona President Delfí Geli is himself part of the club’s history, having played as a defender for the club in two separate spells. Geli’s trust in Pablo Machín, who celebrated four years in charge of the first team in March, has been vital in the club’s pursuit of La Liga.

Having experienced the heartbreak of losing Segunda Division playoffs in 2015, and 2016, Machín finally led the club to promotion in 2017. This remarkable journey preceded Girona’s merging with CFG and GFG, and the takeover has helped drive the club to unprecedented new heights. This being said, the club’s core values and key personnel remained through the many years of anguish.

The new ownership of Girona is one of mutual benefit, with the Catalan club awarded the opportunity to develop some of Manchester City’s most promising youth players. Girona have proved however that they are more than a team built on loanee players. Machín’s side has an ingrained spirit that built the foundations for their success this season, as well as an attractive style of play. When CFG signed their deal with Girona, Manchester City’s chief executive officer Ferran Soriano cited the club’s humility and playing style as a decisive factor in striking the deal.

The loanees from City are designed to provide Girona with quality squad depth, and in return, Girons give the assurance that they provide the perfect conditions for the ‘future’ City players to grow. It is evident that the provision of players from Manchester City serves to supplement a Girona side that was already confident of proving their La Liga worth in last summer’s pre-season.

The arrivals of Maffeo, Garcia, Olarenwaju Kayode and Douglas Luiz have complemented the depth of the squad, but Girona have by no means been reliant on these players. Indeed, Maffeo has made over 20 starts for the club this season and excelled consistently, but Garcia has featured mostly from the substitutes’ bench.

Furthermore, Kayode and Luiz have made 24 appearances off the bench combined, showing the impact that the young players have in adding an extra element to the Girona squad. These extremely talented prospects are not disrupting Machín’s plans at Girona, with no pressure on him to play the loanees. The youngsters are instead trying to prove their worth under his guidance, looking to impress the young manager. If they are good enough, they will start, as proved with Maffeo’s array of fine performances.

Therefore, Girona’s success owes to many factors, instead of just the exclusive benefits that their new ownership brings. The City loanees will gain invaluable experience at Girona, participating in the daily practices of a La Liga team and as evidenced this season, playing in a vastly competitive team. Furthermore, Girona’s freedom to select players on the basis of suitability and ability remains, and in that respect, the club more broadly is operating in an efficient way for the sake of their future as a La Liga outfit.

Messi Maffeo
Invaluable opportunities: No City academy graduate has thrived as much as Pablo Maffeo (right) on loan at Girona

Machin’s acquisitions in the summer of 2017 also demonstrated his own transfer-market savviness. The arrival of Marc Muniesa on loan from Stoke and Christian Stuani on a permanent deal from Middlesborough have been excellent signings. Gorka Iraizoz transferred from Basque Country to Catalonia in a switch from Athletic Bilbao and provides an experienced voice in a dressing room brimming with younger players. Muniesa rose through the ranks at the giant FC Barcelona and told the BBC that he was delighted to be back in Spain, especially in his homeland of Catalonia.

Girona’s first game of the La Liga season, at home to Atletico Madrid, showcased how bright the future was for the Catalan minnows. Stuani scored the first two of his fifteen goals (as of March 9) this season in a 2-2 draw which Girona were unlucky not to win. Saul Niguez of Atletico admitted after the match ‘they were better than us’, a serious admission considering GiGirona’s lackf experience at the highest level.

The opening day draw sent out a message to the rest of the league, but no Girona result was as seismic as their 2-1 home victory over Real Madrid in October 2017. Despite being 1-0 down at half-time courtesy of Isco’s early opener, Stuani led their heroic comeback with midfielder Portu’s back-heeled finish, courtesy of Maffeo’s drilled shot/cross sealing arguably the biggest achievement in the Catalan club’s history.

Many Girona supporters held pro-Catalan independence flags during the game and despite chants of ‘freedom’ from the fans, no incidents interrupted proceedings on the pitch. Girona were scintillating, hitting the woodwork twice in the first half through Portu and Maffeo. The result further exemplified Machín’s superb tactical discipline and use of their compact  Estadi Montilivi pitch to intimidate the European champions, proving again that Girona were here to stay in La Liga.

These two matches in particular against the two Madrid giants illustrated the romance of Girona’s rise to La Liga. But despite not completely relying on City’s youth players to steer them to safety in the league, is there still an unease in the club’s association as ‘an extension’ of CFG? And what are the implications of Girona going even further and qualifying for Europe?

In August, Sid Lowe of the Guardian visited Manchester City’s Etihad Campus. He said that the feeling around the club was that Girona was ‘ours’, a statement that appears to undermine the Spanish club’s autonomy. CFG and indeed Pere Guardiola’s GFG recognise this, and in a BBC interview in October 2017, Machin said he was comfortable with the reality that Girona served as a club where City players could complete ‘apprenticeships’.

In February 2018, the announcement of a new FBA scheme to invest in a young generation of talented students highlighted another dimension to Girona’s bright future. FBA partnerships director cited sustainability and innovation as central to Girona’s appeal. It would again be cynical to suggest that Girona is a commercial puppet in the making, as the club is seamlessly following a model that guarantees the renewal of their integrity and their philosophy.

Girona’s success this season was previously unthinkable, but the prospect of a finish in the Uefa Europa League places is  not beyond the realms of possibility. However, should the club qualify for Europe, they would apparently be barred from participating, as two clubs owned by the same company cannot compete in Uefa competition simultaneously.

In addition, as City would be qualifying for the Uefa Champions League, they would be given preference to participate ahead of Girona, as they will have qualified for the superior competition. This potential stumbling block could raise concern regarding CFG’s involvement with Girona, as their involvement with a club in the same continent as City could hamper the Catalan club’s growth and lofty aspirations.

Machin Zidane
Historic: Pablo Machín’s (left) side beat Zinedine Zidane’s Real Madrid 2-1 in October 2017, the club’s most famous ever victory

Red Bull Leipzig faced a similar fate to Girona when they qualified for the Champions League in the 2016/17 season, as another Red Bull-owned club in FC Salzburg achieved qualification for Europe through winning the Austrian Bundesliga title. However, Leipzig were cleared for entry into the Champions League, and not one German club appealed this structural change.

It is understood at City that in the event of Girona qualifying for Europe, they could ‘mount an argument that their arrangement is not caught by Uefa’s restrictions’. Due to CFG owning ‘only 44%’ of Girona, the deal again looks well structured and equipped to manage any eventualities that were not seen as feasible so early into Girona’s La Liga debut season.

It is not possible to predict where Girona would sit in the La Liga table if they had not sold some of their stakes in the summer, but it is clear that the beauty of their incredible story is untarnished. Their prospects of qualifying for Europe have significantly improved in 2018, yet the Uefa regulations that would supposedly prohibit their participation in European competition next season will not dampen spirits in Girona.

The work that CFG and GFG have done in promoting Girona’s image into an outward-looking but dignified football club has been unquestionably beneficial. The players that City have loaned out will have benefitted markedly from their exposure to Spanish football, as Girona have taken points off established La Liga clubs consistently all season. More broadly, the club’s new hierarchy continues to work to create a commercial interest in Girona, whilst projecting the club’s mantra of honest expectations to provide an infrastructure for future prosperity.

The story of Girona FC is, therefore, one of both romantic sentiment and commercial practicality. The La Liga status of the club is ensured, but Gelí and Machín will not be carried away by what Girona have achieved this season on and off the pitch. The club has proved in its short time under new ownership that it provides a perfect organizational structure for the development of players, coaches, and now students, with business deals being finalised on a regular basis.

Girona are safe from relegation and pushing for a bonus through qualification for next season’s Europe League. Therefore, the 2018/19 season promises to be another campaign where Girona and Spain’s smaller clubs more broadly continue to stun the rest of Europe and exceed their objectives, while the identity of the country’s game is consistently adored around the world.

 

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