Catalan connection: Pep Guardiola, his brother and the Manchester City executives in the shadows at La Liga side Girona

City Football Group own over 40 per cent of the Spanish side but they still wear red and have not taken the name, unlike New York and Melbourne clubs

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 August, 2018, 5:36pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 August, 2018, 5:36pm

It’s the morning after Girona lost 4-1 to Real Madrid and Txiki Begiristain, Manchester City’s Sporting director and Pep Guardiola’s confidant, walks through the ancient heart of the beautiful Catalan city.

City’s links to Catalonia feature prominently in the new Amazon documentary All or Nothing. City’s injured players visit a clinic in Barcelona, Media Pro are production partners, Pep Guardiola is a proud Catalan and there are a several other Catalan officials including City’s chief executive Ferran Soriano. Sporting director Begiristain played for Barça. All recently invested in Manchester’s first Catalan restaurant. There was another angle less explored in the documentary.

A year ago, City Football Group announced that they’d acquired 44.3 per cent of La Liga side Girona FC, with Guardiola’s football agent brother Pere holding another 44.3 per cent and a fans’ group the rest.

It’s not a link either party likes to play up and Girona are keen to keep their independence and make sure that no party owns more than 50 per cent.

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Girona have not taken the “City” name and wear red not blue. Girona benefit from using City’s training facilities during preseason, their recruitment, scouting and executive leadership, as well as loaning promising City players each year.

City see their playing assets appreciate if they can hold their own in La Liga, while holding a substantial stake in a La Liga club.

Not everyone was impressed and La Liga president Javier Tebas, in a speech where he accused City and Paris Saint-Germain of “destroying football” with state-enabled spending, suggested City and Girona were cooking the books by undervaluing five loan players.

Unusually for Spanish football but in keeping with City’s approach to loans, Girona paid no fees for these players.

City dismissed Tebas’s claim as “ill-informed and in parts pure fiction” and threatened legal action. Regardless, the impact of the loan players was limited – only one of them started more than seven games last season, a triumphant year when Girona certainly held their own in their first-ever top flight term, finishing 10th – the best for a debut team for 26 years.

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Promotion had been coming and Girona didn’t need help from City as they finished in the top four three times in four years, before finally winning promotion. Girona thrived on a small budget of 4.5 million (US$5.26 million) a year, increasing to 9 million in 2017.

La Liga television monies allowed them to increase it to a competitive 44 million last season. With clubs receiving more revenues from television than selling match tickets, Girona are the latest tiny club to reach Spain’s top level for the first time, following Eibar, Leganes and Huesca.

Girona are from a city of 100,000, yet they’ve spent more of their history in Spain’s regional third tier than any other division. In 1998-99, when City were in England’s third tier, Girona were in Spain’s fifth averaging three-figure crowds. They rose to the second in 2008 and have done well since, but

Girona has never been a football city and far more people attended basketball in the nineties and noughties.

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Girona has boasted the world’s best restaurant seven times since 2002 and the second best a further five times. It’s a wealthy city with good connections close to the beautiful Costa Brava. That makes it more attractive to footballers.

Girona’s demographic can help their cause. The city’s population is supplemented by another 650,000 people in Girona province, with France only 50 kilometres to the north. This was always FC Barcelona territory, but Catalonia has seven million people and could easily support another top flight club.

As he walked to the stadium on Sunday night, Pere, a 22-year-old fan, was proud to be part of Girona’s burgeoning support which saw average crowds rise above 10,000 for the first time last season. The stadium has since been expanded to seat 14,500.

“I’ve been a season-ticket holder for eight years and watched the rise,” he explained. “It’s fantastic to have a La Liga club here and the people can get close to the heroes in a way they can’t with Barça.

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“We know the link with City, but they don’t have control. We don’t want to be like City. Part of supporting Girona is not expecting to win and suffering with the team.

“We’re happy being like (small Premier League clubs) Huddersfield or Burnley and I’m happy to spend 240 (US$280) for a season ticket without expecting Kun Aguero to come on loan here.”

Despite the 10.15pm kick-off, the crowd walking towards Girona’s imposing new floodlights was full of families. Many females attended, too.

The Barça shirts around Girona have been replaced by the red and white of their local heroes in an area which is the most pro-independence in Catalonia. Yellow ribbons in support of the jailed Catalan politicians proliferate.

Real Madrid, long perceived as Spain’s standard bearers, were right to think they were going into hostile territory. They were defeated in Girona last season when then Catalan president and Girona resident Carles Puigdemont tweeted in joy.

Abu Dhabi based City Football Group’s influence appears to be a light one, with only two current players on loan at Girona, both aged 21. CFG have acquired Manchester City, MLS franchise New York City FC (80%), Australian A-League side Melbourne City (100%), Japan’s Yokohama F Marinos (20%), Uruguay’s Club Atlético Torque (100%), a spread of five continents.

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In 2015, a US$400m investment from the Chinese consortium China Media Capital/Citic MC bought 13 per cent of CFG, valuing it at US$3bn. CFG have long considered buying a team in China.

However proud Girona are of standing alone, they’ll be judged by what happens on the pitch and with one point from their first two games and a tough run ahead, they might need a little more help from City before the transfer window closes this week. At least Begiristain was in town if required.