GIRONA, Spain -- Something special is cooking in Girona, and that doesn't just mean the giant paella served to supporters outside their Montilivi stadium before matches.
Last weekend, they came from behind to beat Valencia 2-1 to remain top of LaLiga, level with Real Madrid and four points clear of reigning champions Barcelona, whom they face on Sunday (stream live on ESPN+ at 3 p.m. ET.) There was an inevitability about the late goals from club legend Cristhian Stuani, the 37-year-old who scored twice in the final eight minutes to cancel out Hugo Duro's opener. The pressure had been growing in the way it often does when big teams chase a game against smaller teams -- except the role of the big team here was played by Girona, in their second season back in LaLiga, against Valencia, the six-time champions of Spain and two-time Champions League finalists.
No team has recovered more points from losing positions in Europe's top five leagues, and the three won against Valencia took Girona's total to 19. They wear their opponents down, relentless, and stick to their aggressive, attacking football come-what-may. "They move you around, they play with you," Valencia's Duro said after the defeat. "They are a magnificent team, and there's a reason why they are up [at] the top."
What is most is impressive is that this is being done on the back of a summer overhaul. Midfielder Oriol Romeu was signed by Barcelona, loanees Rodrigo Riquelme (Atletico Madrid) and Taty Castellanos (Lazio) returned to their parent clubs, while defender Santiago Bueno was transferred to Wolves. They have not been missed with Daley Blind, Eric García, Sávio and Artem Dovbyk among those to arrive and seamlessly adapt to the requirements of impressive coach Míchel, whose sprint down the touchline after Stuani's winner against Valencia was one of the images of the season so far.
With 38 points by December, Girona's preseason objective of LaLiga survival has already been ticked off. Now, there are loftier targets, but with backing from the Abu Dhabi-owned City Football Group (CFG) -- which owns a total of 13 clubs including Manchester City, New York City FC, Melbourne City and Yokohama F. Marinos -- is their story as much of a football fairytale as it appears on first glance? ESPN has spoken to a range of people across the Catalan club to learn more about their incredible rise to the top of the Spanish pyramid, and where they go from here.
Founded in 1930, this is just Girona's fourth season in the Spanish top flight. As recently as 1999, they were playing in the regionalised fifth tier against local Catalan sides in front of crowds of 200. It was not until 2008 that they returned to the second tier after almost 50 years outside the top two divisions. In 2017, for the first time ever, they were promoted to LaLiga. That same year, after promotion, CFG purchased 44.3% of the club, a portion that's since risen to 47%.
Girona Football Group -- led by Pere Guardiola, Manchester City coach Pep Guardiola's brother -- own a 16% stake. Pere originally came into the club in 2015, helping them out of insolvency, and he was involved in the CFG deal. Another 35% has been owned since 2020 by Marcelo Claure, the president of Club Bolivar, a Bolivian side who are also partnered with CFG. Claure was previously involved with Inter Miami, too. In total, 13 clubs are now either owned, part-owned or partnered with CFG -- they have five in Europe, three in South America, and teams in the United States, Australia, Japan, China and India.
"They have organised things much more," Girona sporting director Quique Cárcel told ESPN of what CFG have brought to the table. "Of course, winning promotion to LaLiga [just before they invested] also helped improve many things. The internal infrastructure has grown a lot. The owners are football people. They have knowledge of the game and have built some really good projects."
Cárcel, a former professional footballer, has been at the club since 2014; in fact, the majority of the Girona hierarchy pre-date the CFG deal. President Delfi Geli, another ex-pro who represented Girona, Barcelona and was capped by Spain, has held his role since 2015; CEO Ignacio Mas-Bagà joined the same year. However, the expertise from CFG has also enabled their rise -- notably from the group's CEO Ferran Soriano, who is from Catalonia, but also from other executives in the organisation.
Despite that, after dropping out of LaLiga in 2019, it took them three years to return. A 10th-placed finished last season was promising, but no one could have predicted what was to follow.
A smile spreads across Míchel's face as he looks ahead to a weekend that could have genuine implications on where the LaLiga title does or does not end up this season. Joint-leaders Madrid travel to Real Betis while Girona make the short trip to third-place Barça, who are four points behind the pacesetters after 15 games. "We should ask [Madrid coach Carlo] Ancelotti who he wants to win," Míchel grinned in an interview with ESPN this week. "Girona or Barça?"
Míchel is laughing, but it is increasingly becoming a legitimate question. With just one defeat and seven points dropped this season, Girona's fast start to the campaign has not slowed down as many predicted. The preseason aim of survival has been replaced by European aspirations; beat Barça, and who knows where their ceiling is.
It is quite remarkable, therefore, to think that two years ago, 10 games into his career as Girona coach, Míchel's job was in jeopardy after just two wins in the second division. "I always say the team was transmitting a way of playing that I liked," Cárcel explained to ESPN looking back on that period. "Results were not reflecting what we were seeing in every game.
"I saw the players were growing, developing. We believed that the idea and way of playing we wanted would lead us somewhere. I have got rid of coaches before because I could not see a connection with the players or what I wanted on the pitch. That was not the case with Míchel and, a few months later, we were promoted."
Girona are not just co-leaders in LaLiga. They are also the top scorers in the league with 34 goals, ranking highly in nearly every attacking metric. The style of play referenced by Cárcel is often likened to Man City. "The playing philosophy is very similar," defender Eric García, on loan from Barça and a former City player, told ESPN. "We try to play out from the back, press as quickly as possible when we lose the ball and play attacking football.
"Obviously, from there our opponents are going to have chances because it's what we expose ourselves to, although we try to minimise them. In that sense, it's very similar [to City]."
The current model of play was made non-negotiable by Cárcel in 2018, when Eusebio Sacristán replaced Pablo Machín. Until now, no one had executed it at Girona to the level of Míchel, who has been able to pick the brains of his City counterpart Guardiola -- and has even been linked as a possible successor at the Etihad Stadium. "[Guardiola] speaks with Michel," CEO Mas-Bagà said to ESPN. "They speak about football, of course. When they're not working, they're speaking about football as well because they live for the game, both of them. They have a good relationship and have connected well, they speak the same language."
Attempting to play like City is one thing, but as Mas-Bagà adds, there are other requirements, like the size of a club's budget, that often flavour success more. "The objective is to consolidate ourselves in LaLiga in the coming years," he continued. "It is great to be top, we love it, the excitement of writing history ... but it's not an obsession. We are also realistic and [know we] are ahead of where we should be.
"Budgets are usually a good measure. Whoever invests more usually has better performances on pitch. But also nice stories like ours, a small club, can come around if you dare to play in the same way whether against the bottom side or Madrid or Barça."
LaLiga's strict financial rules also ensure Girona don't overspend. Their spending limit for the current season is €52m, 14th-highest in the league between Rayo Vallecano and Cadiz. That may be a better a gauge of their true place in LaLiga, but there are other advantages to being part of CFG that are not strictly financial. That is perhaps why the Alavés coach, Luis García, said you could not compare the Basque side to Girona when asked if the Catalan club's success could serve as inspiration for teams like his.
A big hand comes in the form of recruitment. Brazilians Yan Couto and Savio are both on loan from other teams owned by CFG (Man City and Troyes), while they also benefitted from the loan of Castellanos via New York City last season. Yangel Herrera joined the club permanently last summer from City, having previously been on loan. Star midfielder Aleix García is another player whose initial contact with Girona was on loan from City. The list, past and present, goes on and on.
The case of 19-year-old forward Savio, who has scored five goals and set up four more this season, is especially interesting, as he was signed by Troyes in 2022 after being spotted by Cárcel. There has been talk he could be the first to make the move in opposite direction one day, from Girona to City, while Barça are also reportedly tracking him.
"We work 100% internally," Cárcel explained of how recruitment works. "We have had a relationship [with CFG] now for years, which has enabled our knowledge-base to grow. But decisions are made here 100%. Obviously, we have that competitive advantage of knowledge about players in the group, allowing us to think about players, such as in the cases of [Castellanos] or Savio and previously Herrera and Couto. That is one of the competitive advantages, but the budget we have is marked by LaLiga. We can't exceed it and we have been working hard internally to reach where we are today, able to build a really competitive team on a humble budget.
"Savio ... left a big impression and we took the decision to try and sign him, but no one could have expected the impact he's had. We bet big on him because we believed in him, but he has also surprised us with his performances."
Girona have been increasingly successful in fending off competition from bigger European clubs to land transfer targets not connected to CFG, too. Ukraine internationals Artem Dovbyk and Viktor Tsygankov joined for €7.75m and €5m respectively. Netherlands international Blind -- previously of Bayern Munich, Manchester United and Ajax -- also signed in the summer, adding experience alongside the likes of David López and Stuani.
Míchel, who previously took hometown Rayo Vallecano and Huesca up to LaLiga before landing the Girona job, was a pull for those players.
"We had some good talks about how he sees football, how he wants to play and how he sees me in his way of playing football," defender Blind told ESPN. "I was intrigued by that, it felt good. [He] showed a lot of confidence in me and this was something I was looking for.
"You see how we play, [Míchel] wants to play attacking football, he wants to dominate the games, to keep ball possession. These are all things I like about football as well and I think suit me more. The way of thinking about football was similar to how I want to play and the club gave me a lot of confidence by showing their interest over a longer time."
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Míchel moved into the centre of Girona upon taking the job, impressing locals with his decision to learn Catalan. It is a picturesque city, with the multi-coloured hanging houses over the river Onyar ripe for Instagram. The Jewish Quarter and the cathedral were used as locations in the TV series Game of Thrones, and with the beaches of the Costa Brava close by and Barcelona just an hour to the south, it is a tourist hotspot for many months of the year.
However, it's not traditionally been a football city. Cyclists flock there year-round, and the basketball team has always been relatively well supported, but football? Not so much. With a population of around 100,000, it is not an especially big city, either -- two factors that could yet damage Girona's hopes of growing their fan base.
Scratch a little deeper, however, and you will see that the province of Girona, which encompasses the northern area of Catalonia, has a population of over 800,000. Aside from Barça and Espanyol -- who were relegated to the second division last season -- there is not a great deal of competition in the region. It all amounts to great potential.
"Being where we are at the moment, fighting with the big clubs, brings people on board," Cárcel said. "We are achieving that little by little. Now, there are loads of kids on the streets in Girona shirts. Ten years ago, when I arrived, there were none. Everyone was in a Barça shirt. That is where we have to fight to grow. I see Girona shirts in Barcelona, too. That's emotional for me. It is really important and it shows that we are no longer a team on the outskirts."
Any Girona-Barcelona loyalties will be put to the test on Sunday when the two teams meet at the Olympic Stadium. Barça coach Xavi Hernández has acknowledged Girona are now "direct rivals" in the title race this season, though Girona's players aren't allowing themselves to make such lofty claims yet.
"We see it game by game and the pressure is not on us," Blind insisted. "Barça are a great team, they have some great individual players. It will be a very difficult game, but these are the games you want to play as a kid against those teams. It will be a great match against great players, great team and we need to be at our best to get a result, we know that.
"I think Girona is still a small club which is building, we are in a good build up now. I hope the club can continue like this and we should see where we are playing next season. Up until now, we are enjoying the moment. We work hard every week and we try to do our best at the weekend and win every game."
Cárcel admits qualifying for Europe for the first time in the club's history is more of a target. "The objective for the season has changed, evidently," he said. "We could never have expected that we would have 38 points after 15 games. It's historic. it won't happen again because it is so, so difficult.
"The objective now is try and be in the European places [top seven] because the points we have make us think that we can fight for that. That's where we are, thinking about the next game, Barcelona, but also that the final objective has to be to fight for everything. Right now, we have to think that Europe is an objective."
A top-four finish and Champions League qualification could throw up an interesting quandary for CFG. Asked if both Girona and City, under the CFG umbrella, would be allowed to compete in Europe's elite competition should they both qualify, a UEFA spokesman referred ESPN to Article 5 of the Champions League regulations. The legislation states "no individual or legal entity may have control or influence over more than one club participating in a UEFA club competition." That would suggest it would not be possible, but both FC Salzburg and RB Leipzig [owned by Red Bull] found a way around the wording and while the cases are different, CFG would perhaps take optimism from that precedent.
"I am not an expert in that area but obviously if that happens in the end, and we finish in the top four, which will be really difficult, but I think that if Girona achieve that then, yes, we will be playing in the Champions League next season," Cárcel told ESPN.
Rob Palmer discusses Girona's chances of staying with LaLiga's best sides at the top of the table on ESPN FC Live.
While they are very much in the race for Champions League football this season, though, competing on a yearly basis is perhaps impossible with the current infrastructure. They are finally starting to outgrow Montilivi, their 13,000-seater stadium that shakes in the wind, while the first-team training base, as beautiful as the location is with mountain views and neighbouring a PGA golf resort, is effectively one pitch and a few portable cabins. The academy and the club's other teams train elsewhere.
"When the new owners came in, we marked some objectives," Mas-Bagà detailed. "The first was to be sustainable and profitable as a business. Next, to be a platform for the development of young talent ...Then, to be references commercially and socially ... The last one is improve all the club's infrastructure."
Mas-Bagà has a belief that every little helps in the pursuit of excellence, inherited from CFG CEO Soriano, so a new training centre and improved stadium will only add to the personnel already in place.
"We are all cogs in a machine," he added. "I like to put it like that because we all contribute so that the ball goes in. As Soriano's book is titled, 'The ball does not go in by chance.' We try to increase the probabilities [of success]. From behind the scenes, we push so that the players, the coach, the sporting director all have it a little easier to achieve the objectives. In this case, that is to win each game, which has taken us to a place in the table where we would never have imagined being."