“W“We know this is not normal,” said Aleix García, and yet he insisted it was no coincidence. In any case, it was historic. On September 27, 2023 at 8:20 p.m., the other García, Eric, headed the goal that put his team in the lead against Villarreal, en route to another victory to take them over Real Madrid, over Barcelona and over everyone else bring. This wasn’t supposed to happen, but it did. On the long bus ride home, up the East Coast in the dark, even the manager admitted that he scrolled through his phone and took the screenshot that proved it. Pop to kiosk on Thursday morning if he could find one, and there it is to cut out and keep: Girona Futbol Club is at the top of the league.
The city with the best restaurant in the world now has the best football team in Spain. Maybe even in Europe: in the five biggest leagues, no one has more points than Girona and no one is more excited to be there. “Euphoric,” said Eric García, and why not? The last team to achieve it Primera – The club that only got there in 2017 and left two years later – and the team that only returned 15 months ago – are at the top for the first time ever.
The 41st club to complete a round of games there – the last to finish top was Villarreal in 2015 – had given them their sixth successive win. “There are no more words to describe this team,” wrote Diari de Girona, somehow finding 788 of them. It’s just a shame, said their coach, that they’re playing against Real Madrid in three days.
Or is it?
Nobody had a top-flight clash in mind when watching Madrid’s trip to Montilivi, where there are just 14,624 spectators, some of them in scaffolding stands. But there it is: Saturday, 6.30 p.m., first against second, a twist on the classic game between the capital’s giants and the best team in Catalonia. The teams directly behind Girona are Madrid, Barcelona and Athletic: between them they have 279 seasons in the top flight; Girona has three. As a city of 97,586 people, home to Game of Thrones and many other activities, this is not a football-loving place. Despite being the team that supports Carles Puigdemont, they have little political power and are overshadowed by Barcelona 60 miles away.
Their goal this season can only be survival, they said. Last year they finished 10th, 39 Points ahead of the leaders and had achieved too much. Then they lost the central player in their midfield, Oriol Romeu, to Barcelona for 3.5 million euros – “they are not doing us any favors,” said the club owner. They also lost their leading scorer, Taty Castellanos; their best winger, Rodrigo Riquelme; and their center back, Santi Bueno, whose title would only be more apt if his middle name were Moi. All of them played at least 33 of 38 league games last season. Six players arrived, two on loan and one on a free transfer, for just over 15 million euros, their salary limit was 51.98 million euros. Compare that to Madrid’s €727.45 million. Only six clubs have less than 50 million euros.
And yes, here it is and yet comes. And yet there is no guarantee that it will end on Saturday evening. More importantly, there is no guarantee that it will completely disintegrate. The last time Madrid were at Montilivi, Girona overtook them with four wins and they went into the final day of last season with half a chance of securing a European place. “We know that it is very difficult to continue like this,” Eric García admitted on Wednesday evening and he was right. It’s also true that none of the six teams they beat – Sevilla, Granada, Mallorca, Villarreal, Las Palmas and Getafe – are higher than 10th (and may finish even worse this round). These 19 points are never taken away again, so after just seven weeks you will have achieved half of your survival. They also give Girona a nine-point lead over the bottom European place, presenting a chance for a target shift.
Furthermore, this is not about numbers and, as Aleix García said, not about chance. There is something much more fundamental that is made clear again: Girona are very good at football. Although Villarreal took the lead through a Dani Parejo penalty, they won 2-1 and could have scored a third, fourth or fifth goal. Cristhian Stuani could have scored a hat trick in four minutes. They shot 17 times, cutting their opponents apart. “This is a team that knows that it is moving forward,” said the coach; It is not the classic small promoted team that exceeds its goals by eliminating the ball or the opponents or parking the bus. In their games last season there were four 2-2 wins, three 3-2 wins, one 4-2 result, one 5-3 result and one 6-2 result; This season, no team in Europe has not only scored more points, but no team has scored more goals.
“We’re enjoying it a lot,” said Aleix García, and it shows.
Just look at the wingers: Viktor Tsygankov is an outstanding player, not just a list of flu symptoms. On the other hand, 19-year-old Brazilian Savinho – on loan from Troyes, which, like Girona, is part of the City Football Group – was not wanted by PSV and was not happy, but has already provided four assists and two goals and is perhaps the most exciting at the moment Footballers in La Liga. His coach, Míchel Sánchez, said he had not seen a player with his impact and ability to beat people one-on-one since Vinícius. “He is a discovery for me,” admitted Eric García. “He’s incredible: you see today what he did to (Juan) Foyth, who is one of the best defenders in the league.” But it’s all of them: their 18 goals were scored by 11 different players; Ten of these were scored inside the six-yard box, with Girona winning the game All the Way to their opponents.
Even these opponents simply like it, Villarreal coach Pacheta described them as “admirable” on Wednesday evening. “They are the team that plays the best football Primera departmentsaid Villarreal midfielder Ramon Terrats. “It’s nice to see them play. It’s hard to play against them, but it’s nice to watch them.”
This is the triumph of an idea across the club. Girona is owned by Pep Guardiola’s brother Pere and CFG. While this is not a team full of Manchester City’s talent – footballers who inevitably become superstars – the connection brings players (Castellanos was part of the City group, as were Yangel Herrera, Yan Couto and Savinho) and a plan. There is support and stability and, above all, an identity. The president Delfí Geli and the sports director Quique Cárcel have been in office since 2015, through promotion, relegation and re-promotion. The coach also has full support.
As a Rayo Vallecano legend, they call him Míchel I of Vallecas – and yes, there is a Míchel II who was coach of the Madrid representative team – and he moved to Girona in the summer of 2021 after Francisco left. Míchel did not expect to work this year at all, and after a difficult start, perhaps he did not expect that he would continue to work for a long time and slip into the second division. But his ideas were theirs and the support was there. He was immediately likeable, a man who immediately tried to learn Catalan, insisted on speaking it and, more importantly, listening to it at press conferences and in the club, he fit in too. And at the end of the season, Girona found themselves in a playoff spot. If that doesn’t guarantee anything except looks old ghosts, old fears – They had lost in the playoffs in 2013, 2015, 2016, 2020 and 2021 and reached the finals in five of the six seasons – this time they advanced.
Míchel had taken Rayo and Huesca to the top in 2018 and 2020 respectively, but was sacked midway through the following seasons and watched from afar as they were relegated again. This time it was better: He was different – he says he learned to accept that there would be times when his team couldn’t attack – and so did the club. “The most important thing is the daily work, and this is where I felt most comfortable, where there is the most trust,” he says. “There is continuity and that gives us peace. This summer we signed players who completely, completely met our expectations.”
They almost reached Europe last season and now, just 15 months after reaching the top flight, they are topping it for the first time ever, and doing so with flying colors. Feet on the floor was the phrase that was repeated over and over again, but in the locker room… “well, you can imagine,” said Eric García. “We have to enjoy this while we can.” Futbol Club Girona were top of the table and everything was perfect. Well, almost everything. There was just one problem, Míchel said: “It’s week seven, not 38.”