GIRONA, March 17 — Girona president Delfi Geli used to play alongside Pep Guardiola and while his former team mate is close to breaking the Premier League points and goals records as Manchester City coach, the Catalan club are also on their way to making history.
With a squad that cost €4.6 million (RM22.1 million) to assemble — one per cent of that of their next opponents Real Madrid — Girona have climbed to seventh in La Liga in their first top-flight campaign and are well placed to qualify for next season’s Europa League.
“A budget helps a lot but you have to make sure that whichever players you bring in, you build a strong and united team. We have a very balanced squad but above all we’ve created a very strong collective,” Geli told Reuters in an interview.
“The coaching staff know exactly what our virtues are and how to get the best out of them, they believe in an idea. We took our time to adapt but we slowly built confidence. We are very difficult to beat and we cause problems for any team.”
Girona beat European and Liga champions Real Madrid earlier this season and have twice taken points off second-placed Atletico Madrid. Despite their impressive results, they still resemble a lower-division club in many ways.
Their training ground has only two pitches and is so small that the players have to eat together at a nearby golf club.
They were also forced to add temporary stands to their Montilivi stadium last year to comply with La Liga’s stadia requirements.
Girona are in the middle of a modernising process, however, guided by Premier League leaders City.
Last August, the team’s network of clubs, City Football Group, bought a 44.3 per cent stake in Girona, becoming the joint-majority shareholder along with Pere Guardiola, brother of City coach Pep.
City have loaned five players to Girona, although only defender Pablo Maffeo is a regular starter and their consistent results this campaign have largely been down to the same players that won them promotion.
Geli sees the relationship with City less about football and more about developing the club off the pitch. City, to take one example, are advising them in their efforts to search for a new training ground.
“City is a very important football institution with a global reach, they lead big sporting, financial and social projects and we believe that with their help and example we can grow a lot,” he says.
Geli is proud to see Guardiola doing so well in England and says the City coach was starting to think like a manager even when he was 20-years-old and playing alongside him in Barcelona’s B team.
“Pep had a way of understanding football on the pitch, not just how to play but how to be an organiser,” he says.
“He liked to interpret how a team could play and study everything that can happen on a pitch. He was interested in every aspect of the game and was eager to learn more every day.
“The fact that Pep is working in one of the clubs of the group is very exciting for us and makes us proud. But he works for City and we at Girona have to go our own way.
“Of course, both clubs are happy for our mutual successes. City are playing wonderful football and we think Girona are doing well too.”
Girona’s exciting path towards a top-six finish in La Liga and Europa League qualification could not be further from the club where former right back Geli began and ended his career, which also included spells at Atletico and Alaves plus a stint in the Spain team.
“We had a lot of financial problems and the club was only focused on surviving and subsisting year by year,” he recalled.
“Our aim now is to see Girona in La Liga for many years. It depends a lot on whether the ball goes in the net each week but we’re trying to bring stability and ensure that if we have bad results one year there isn’t an institutional debacle.”
Girona have become the best-performing debutants in the history of the league, but most importantly for Geli they have finally captured the attention of a city that was never known for its football culture.
“People here used to travel to go and watch Barcelona or Espanyol. But now many people here consider Girona as their number one club,” he says.
“Children are very excited about coming to see the team and we have a lot of families showing up. A few years ago their reference point was Barca and Messi. Now it’s Girona.” — Reuters