Girona’s promotion should be a turning point for a Catalan club forever in the shadows.

Damned no more, Girona Fútbol Club will be in the first division next season, finally making their debut well into their ninth decade. “History!” Carles Puigdemont, the president of the Catalan Generalitat called it. Closure, too. The striker Fran Sandanza likened it to a “wound that hadn’t healed.” Defender Jonas Ramalho calls it a “thorn” in their sides. “Well,” he says, “we’ve removed it now.”

Girona has 98,255 people, a restaurant with three Michelin Stars that has been named the best in the world and has provided the setting for Game of Thrones, but it has never had a first division team before. A club that has spent 57 years in tercera and Segunda B, Girona have never really been close — at least not since 1936, the year civil war broke out. Not until the last four years, either, when it has been really, really close.

“Three times in four years, we were stopped at the gates,” Ramalho says. It happened in 2013, 2015 and 2016, seasons in which they finished fourth, third and fourth, losing in the play-offs each time, two of those in the final; the weight of recent history was crushing. As they approached the end of this season, one player admitted he didn’t even want to talk about going up until it was mathematically certain. They had been hurt too many times before. This wasn’t superstition, it was survival. Why risk it?

The 2015 season was especially cruel: a last-minute goal from Lugo on the final day denied Girona automatic promotion and the drama increased when something was thrown from the stands: the referee took the teams back to the dressing rooms, where they waited for 15 minutes before coming back out to play the final 40 seconds. Girona went into the play-offs, where it would be tempting to say that Real Zaragoza destroyed them if it wasn’t for the fact that they were already destroyed.

Two years on, they met Zaragoza again but this time it was different… and maybe it had to be. The ghost of seasons past were kept at bay: with four weeks left, they had a seven-point lead and they reached the penultimate week knowing that a solitary point would do. Importantly, it would do for survival-seeking Zaragoza too, the 0-0 draw all but inevitable. Barely a shot was fired. “We had that margin [for error],” Ramalho says. “That was the good thing about this year; the work we had done all season meant that when it came to it we had that “tranquility” — we weren’t in a position where we absolutely had to win, all that pressure upon us.”

“The truth is, those experiences never leave you: they’re always on your mind. You think back to those previous years and you think: what if it happens again? We had games this season that we could have killed off and virtually assured promotion [earlier] and it wasn’t to be – and you do start to wonder. There are moments the squad, the fans, all of us start wondering if it’s going to happen again. Getting to that point like that helped. And in the end, we reached our target. We pulled that thorn from our sides.”

Girona’s manager Pablo Machín has likened them to Atlético Madrid. There’s the pupas thing, for a start: the sense that they were jinxed. There’s the style, too. Ramalho described his manager as “very clear, very strict.”

“We’re solid, we have let in few goals, we defend well, we don’t allow many chances, and we’re very direct; it has worked well, it is what took us to the first division.”

The first division. First. Division.


In the first division.

Ramalho, left, represented Spain’s junior teams but is now an anchor in Girona’s defence.

“I’m not sure we’re really conscious of what this could mean,” Ramalho continues. “We know it’s historic but we don’t know exactly what it means for the city, or the club, yet. It’s not yet sunk in.”

In part, that is because it always felt destined not to be; in part it is because this is an improbable place, with little history to fall back on; in part, it is because this could be absolutely huge. The hope, certainly, is that it is the beginning of something; this is an opportunity to build something, almost from the start. Girona is no sleeping giant on the rise again. “This changes everything,” the manager says.

This is a club that not so long ago counted its supporters in the hundreds and has a stadium that holds a little over 9,000 but rarely fills. As the season neared a successful conclusion, one player was caught on camera asking fans: “where were you in the winter?!” Carles Puigdemont is a season ticket holder, one of 7,000, their highest-ever number. This is the only Catalan province not to have had a first division team until now and like others from Girona, he confesses to being a Barcelona supporter. “Traditionally, this is a city of Barca fans,” the coach says. “But people are becoming Girona fans now.”

With the Costa Brava to the east, the Pyrenees to the north and FC Barcelona a fraction over 100km away, Girona sporting director Quique Cárcel admits that in a city where “people live well, you can ski or go to the beach,” football has always been in the “background.” Now, perhaps, they can bring it to the forefront. Football could bring the city even further to the forefront, too: some have calculated the potential municipal benefit to be in excess of €20 million. “We’re a top-flight city that now has a top-flight team,” said the Mayor Marta Madrenas. “We’ve been waiting a long time for this.”

The former mayor Joaquim Nadal admits: “Girona FC didn’t have an epic history, it was not deeply embedded or symbolic and it didn’t have a mass following.” Now, there’s an opportunity to change that, at last a little. The 9,000 stadium, which is municipally owned, will be expanded by over 3,000. Portable toilets will be replaced by permanent ones. The club is very conscious of the need to capitalise on the moment to build a fan base, encouraging fidelity and identification with the team, seeking to prevent them drifting away. “We’re a small club and we have to grow our social base,” the president says. “Barcelona soak up many fans here.”

For the past two years Girona have had French owners, the company TVSE, although the identity of the men behind it remains unknown. Their president is Delfí Geli, who you may remember as the Alavés player who scored the Golden Goal — an own goal — in the 2001 UEFA Cup final. He also played for Spain, as well as Albacete, Atletico and Barcelona, and he started and finished his career at Girona. The club is advised by the Catalan media and sports representation company Mediabase, which is associated with Jaume Roures, owner of the country’s TV rights, and led by Pere Guardiola: Pep’s brother.

Through him, a relationship has been built with Manchester City: Girona’s sporting director admitted that he talks to Txiki Beguiristain weekly. There is no money involved but the tie-in is a formal one and three City players have been on loan at Montilivi, albeit only one this season. Like the stadium, the intention is for that relationship to be expanded. The budget will grow too, of course: it was €9.5m this year; from TV money alone, they will earn €40m next season.

“It’s not just promotion. It’s the beginning of something,” Ramalho says. “It can become a more consolidated club. In previous years, it was totally different [from how it has become]. The tie-in with Man City has helped a lot. It will keep growing and long-term, I think this will be something else.”

Girona’s revenue and budget will grow exponentially upon joining Spain’s top flight. Will they be able to stay up?

Next season already will be and there is no break at the boardroom level, either: they’re building towards that now.

“I have two years left on my contract and the club wants me to continue so that’s perfect for me. I’m really looking forward to being here next year, and playing in the first division,” said Ramalho, although there’s a hint of sadness when he talks about how it may be different for some of his teammates, men who helped to finally pull that thorn from Girona’s side.

“When a team goes up, it is hard for the whole squad to continue: teams always try to buy better players, get people with more talent or experience in the first division,” he says. “They’ll bring in signings: in fact they already are. That can be hard for players: you’ve been fighting all year, you’ve given everything and then maybe you’re told you’re not in the plans. That hurts but there’s nothing you can do. When you belong to a club, it is the club that decides. It’s up to them. It’s a pity sometimes, it can be hard to take. But as I always say, there are many paths you can go down.”

His path will take him back to San Mamés, where it all began. Well, sort of. He has only played at the new San Mamés for Athletic Bilbao’s B team, when he momentarily returned there as he continued his recovery after injury. With the first team, he only ever played at the old San Mamés. The chance to go back and face his former club, to see the new place full, is special. He says Athletic will “always be in my heart,” calling it his “home”, the place he played “all my life.”

It’s not a huge exaggeration: Ramalho was just 14 when he first played for Athletic in a friendly, becoming the youngest-ever player there before finally making his competitive debut at 18. “You tell people that and they don’t believe it: it’s unthinkable, really,” he says.

The son of an Angolan father and Basque mother, he was also the first black player to ever play for Athletic. “Maybe as a kid I wasn’t really conscious of what it meant,” he concedes. “I was 17, 18 and I didn’t think of it as such an important thing and it wasn’t extra pressure. The truth is, what mattered to me then was playing: I just wanted to get into the first team; I just wanted to play football. Now that I’ve left the club, I’m a bit older, I stop and think about it and I think, ‘wow.’ It means a lot to me; it’s lovely to have done something like that, something historic, at a club like Athletic.”

Something historic at Girona, too.

Sid Lowe is a Spain-based columnist and journalist who writes for ESPN FC, the Guardian, FourFourTwo and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter at @sidlowe.

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