Girona, you could say, is the city that has it all. Located 45 minutes south of the French border and an hour north of Barcelona, it boasts a magnificently preserved medieval centre, crammed with narrow, winding alleyways which are blessed with an abundance of world-class restaurants.
A few miles to the east lie the beautiful rocky beaches of the Costa Brava, attracting millions of visitors every year, while a similar short distance to the north-west brings you to the glistening peaks and ski resorts of the Pyrenees mountain range.
Until now, however, one thing that Girona always lacked was a top-class football team, with the city’s barely-supported club occupying an anonymous place in the lower leagues and contesting local Catalan competitions against similarly small-time outfits such as Olot and Banyoles.
But that has all changed with a dramatic transformation over the past decade, firstly taking the team into the Segunda Division after a wait of half a century and this season, following a handful of potentially devastating near misses, a place in the top flight for the first time in club history.
Journalist Carles Rosell has spent the last nine years covering the club’s fortunes for local newspaper Diari de Girona, and he describes the recent upturn as “an incredible change.
Rosell told Sport360° said: “The club used to be basically amateur but it has grown a lot and now everything is so much more professional – on and off the pitch.”
There has been a trio of key figures behind that turnaround: club president (and former player) Delfi Geli, director of football Quique Carcel and manager Pablo Machin, who have worked together for the last three years.
Another major factor in the club’s progression has been a close association with Manchester City, with a steady supply of young players making their way from Etihad Stadium to north-eastern Spain for loan spells.
City’s chief executive Ferran Soriano and director of football Txiki Begiristain possess close and long-standing connections with Girona since their time at nearby Barcelona.
Last week Girona’s alliance with City was made much stronger with the news that the club has become the latest member of the English giant’s international stable.
City Football Group are now 44 per cent joint owners of the Blanquivermell alongside Girona Football Group, which happens to be headed by none other than Pere Guardiola – the younger brother and agent of City boss Pep.
As a sign of things to come, five young City players are spending the season on loan at Girona, who had the temerity to beat their parent club 1-0 in a recent friendly.
From now onwards that will become a consistent occurrence, allowing City to get around the lack of competitive reserve team football in England – something which infuriates Guardiola – by sending their most promising young stars to sharpen their skills at a high level in Spain.
Rosell believes the takeover by City is nothing but positive, explaining: “Having such a powerful club behind you can only be beneficial. It gives the club an opportunity to sign better players and continue growing.”
There is, however, no guarantee that City’s young stars will get into the team. Only one of the five loanees, 20 year-old right-back Pablo Maffeo, was named in the starting line-up for the team’s opening two games of the season, which resulted in a thrilling 2-2 draw with Atletico Madrid and Saturday’s fully deserved 1-0 win over Malaga.
Despite welcoming a dozen new arrivals this summer, Machin has been loyal to the core of the team which gained promotion.
Lining up in an attacking 3-4-3 formation they persist with passing football, regularly switching the play to utilise dangerous wingers Borja Garcia and Portu, and Saturday’s confident performance against Malaga showed they have clearly found a formula which works.
The final whistle, confirming Girona’s first-ever top flight victory, was met with unrestrained celebrations by the players and fans alike, even though there were still a few empty seats in their council-owned Montilivi stadium which has been adorned with additional seating this season to take the capacity beyond 13,000.
Rosell admits it feels “very strange” to see so many people inside Montilivi after spending the last nine years following the team in the company of no more than 2-3,000 spectators, but gradually the fanbase is growing.
This is a club of recently converted locals rather than long-term die-hards, and historically football fans in Girona would support a top flight team – generally Barcelona, with busloads habitually making their way south to Camp Nou.
Typical of the rising Girona fanbase are Jaume Boix and Jordi Lafuente, season tickets holders with their respective sons Marti (8) and Biel (10). They first started following the team “three or four years ago,” and Biel revealed there has been a notable shift in allegiances among his schoolmates. “Lots of my friends were Barca fans,” he said.
“But now more of them support Girona.” Predictably, manager Machin is attempting to ensure his players do not get carried away with their recent successes.
The 42 year-old gave an amused response to the suggestion after decades of obscurity his team is now being watched all over the world, smiling: “You’re making me blush. We’re not used to this. Fans stopping you in the street for autographs, waiting to cheer the team coach when we arrive for games…it’s unthinkable for a club like Girona.”
One of Machin’s brightest assets is impressive 24 year-old midfielder Pere Pons, who was born in Girona, progressed through the club’s youth ranks and is now forming an effective top-flight partnership with canny captain – and another local boy – Alex Granell.
Pons is still clearly trying to take in his club’s new-found status, beaming: “I’ve been here since I was very young and it’s like a dream, incredible. The people of Girona must enjoy it to the full.”
And despite the increasingly close links with Manchester City, Pons believes the team’s greatest asset is the continuity they have enjoyed in recent years, saying “We’ve spent a lot of time together and we know each other well. It will be difficult this season but nobody will beat us for desire.”
So, how far can they go? Rosell is setting the bar high, pointing to the example of Villarreal’s rise in the last couple of decades. “They are another team from a small town who do things well and look at what they have achieved, reaching the semi-finals of the Champions League,” he said.
“Maybe something similar can happen here.” Fans certainly share that optimism. Jaume Boix scoffed at the suggestion that his team might succeed in avoiding relegation, laughing: “If we keep playing like this, we’ll be in the Europa League.”
With a strong core and friends in high places, you never know.
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