You might have been tempted, upon surveying Europe’s big five leagues, to think that Girona are part of a pattern. What do I mean? Well, the least-known of Catalonia’s three important clubs is leading LaLiga, while Tottenham Hotspur had been in top spot in England, Bayer Leverkusen are setting the pace in the Bundesliga, and Nice are looking down their nose at the riff-raff in France’s Ligue 1.
At a glance, it’s an endorphin rush for any fan who is tired of football’s status quo and who yearns for the underdog to bark, snarl and maybe even win “best in show” once in a while. Spurs haven’t won a league title since 1961, a 62-year streak of struggle and strife. Nice’s Ligue 1 drought stretches back 64 years to 1959, while Leverkusen have never been German champions.
Despite that, Girona remain ultra-outliers and don’t even fit in that unusual group of this season’s table-toppers. Far smaller in size than nearby clubs Barcelona and Espanyol, they have a tiny ground (14,000 capacity), tiny budget (€55 million last season) and an even smaller trophy cabinet.
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Let’s compare again: Spurs have 24 major trophies, including a variety of UEFA competitions, plus they were Champions League finalists only four years ago. Nice have eight major trophies — including being crowned French champions four times — and were Coupe de France runners-up as recently as 2022. Bayer Leverkusen may well be considered Germany’s perpetual bridesmaids, finishing second in the Bundesliga or the cup eight times, but they have a European trophy as well as two other major pieces of silverware and a Champions League final appearance across their history.
Girona simply don’t know what it’s like to lift a major trophy of any kind.
Please note: there’s no way that the handful of times they won Spain’s third or fourth divisions counts here. No chance. In fact, their promotion in 2017 was the first time in club history, having been formed in 1930, when Los Albirrojos actually competed in LaLiga. They’ve never even come close to qualifying for European competition and must restrain themselves from getting a nosebleed given their vertiginous position at the summit, two points ahead of Madrid and four in front of champions Barcelona after 12 games.
As far as Spain’s Copa del Rey is concerned, this club from the posh, tranquil, northeastern part of Catalunya, about an hour’s drive from Barcelona, have never been past the quarterfinal stage. So, what the heck are they doing top of Spain’s Primera Division?
The first thing to tell you is: always watch Girona. They are one hell of a rollercoaster ride — always on the attack with apparently very little committed to defending, with a thrilling and swashbuckling style in equal measure. In short: they’re fun. Really good fun.
Míchel’s team have scored more than either Madrid or Barcelona, by six and five goals respectively. If you’d watched every Los Blancos or Blaugrana league match this season, you’d have seen, respectively, a grand total of either 31 or 36 goals. Girona, the entertainers, can sneer at those stats, scoring 29 times and conceded 15. So, watching Girona has, so far, been a 44-goal feast.
By quick comparison, Spurs’ matches have seen 36 goals, all-in, OGC Nice just 17 (it’s remarkable that they’ve conceded just four times in Ligue 1) and Leverkusen 40 — however, Xabi Alonso’s side, like Spurs, could also teach Girona a thing or two about defending, having conceded just 10 themselves.
The great achievement at Girona isn’t that they’re top right now — they won’t win the title and it’ll be a minor miracle if they can finish top four — but that the whole is far greater than the sum of the parts. There’s not a single player under Michel’s tuition whom you’d consider to be world class. Of the standout footballers in their squad, 26-year-old Aleix García, enjoying the season of his life in central midfield, has no Spain cap or squad appearance and didn’t make it at Manchester City (City Football Group, or CFG, are majority shareholders in Girona.)
Next — arguably at least — is Sávio Moreira de Oliveira, sometimes nicknamed Savinho, a sublimely talented 19-year-old Brazilian who also hasn’t even appeared in his national team’s squad lists and was playing Dutch second-division football for Jong PSV (the Eredivisie club’s youth team) last season.
Daley Blind, 33, has been around the block a handful of times, but his lack of pace is painfully obvious and occasionally this season, the same can be said about his sharpness. Goalkeeper Paulo Gazzaniga may come from the World Cup-winning nation of Argentina, but he’s only played one friendly for them, is at the seventh club in a 12-year career and, in recent weeks, hasn’t looked the most solid.
I could go on; how about Yangel Herrera, the Venezuela international who was under contract at Manchester City for five years and didn’t once turn out for Pep Guardiola’s team? Or defender Eric García, loaned out by Barcelona in the summer, or 34-year-old club captain David López, whom I guess Espanyol thought was over the hill a couple of seasons when they let him go on a free transfer to newly promoted Girona.
You get my point. Without naming the full squad, you can see that Girona have somehow managed to cook up a stew using lots of ingredients that other clubs, other directors of football and many international coaches thought very little of. There’s a huge merit in that fact, and the credit goes to Girona’s smart, patient sporting director, Enrique “Quique” Carcel. He’s been at the club for nearly 10 seasons, overseeing five promotion playoffs and two promotions, plus the only four seasons Girona have spent in Spain’s top division. They know they’ve got a diamond on their staff, and his contract runs until 2027.
What about the coach who’s coaxed more than the sum of the parts out of his patch-work squad? And coped with a clutch of vital players, including his best one, Oriol Romeu, leaving last summer? Known as Michel, his real name is Miguel Ángel Sánchez Muñoz — as a diminutive midfielder, he was a playing legend at Rayo Vallecano.
What should you love him for? Well, his complete commitment to daring, attacking football for one thing, and it’s working, too. Precisely two years ago, Girona were fourth-bottom in the second division: today, they’re top of the heap.
Now, this isn’t to say that Michel wouldn’t like his team to concede fewer times, or sign better quality defenders and goalkeepers. He would. But equally, he must work within a constrictive budget that, two years ago, was only €14m, and dovetails brilliantly with the work Carcel does in spotting and persuading talents other clubs ignore to get on board. “I want to empower and develop my players, not minimise the risks when we play” is one of his delicious refrains.
Another welcome revelation is that when Girona were in relegation trouble two years ago, CFG sent Michel a direct message saying that “all their data told them that the football we were playing was good enough to get us promoted and that, under no circumstances, was I to compromise or change anything.” How much would the majority of coaches give not only for that firmness of support, but that absolute clarity of vision and analysis from those that own or run their club?
A couple of other names are worthy of your attention, albeit not ones to entertain when you either tune in or, better still, visit the Montilivi Stadium.
Pep Guardiola’s younger brother, Pere, is a shareholder at Girona and helped secure the fantastic Ukraine international Viktor Tsygankov just under a year ago. Approaching his 50th international cap, the left-footed midfielder was running down his Dinamo Kyiv contract, and clubs were queuing up to try and scoop him up on a free. Instead, Guardiola persuaded Tsygankov that Girona wanted him, not just a bargain, that they wanted him immediately and that they were willing to pay Dinamo rather than burgle them at the end of the season. Deal done. He’s pure class. The club spent €5m in transfer fees to bring Tsygankov in and calculated, even then, that he was worth six or seven times that.
Finally, there’s some sheen added to Girona’s board in that Bolivian-American Claure, one of David Beckham’s original partners in building the Inter Miami franchise, is a shareholder.
This isn’t a column to over-praise or over-project their efforts: after all, I’m sure they won’t keep pace with Madrid, Barcelona, Atletico Madrid or Real Sociedad across a long and exhausting season. Instead, Girona will have performed magnificently if, by June, they can parlay their exceptional start into some form of debut in European football.
Their budget will thank them, too, but what is vital to emphasise here is: always, always watch Girona if you can. They’ll reward you for it.