Pitchside Europe

Girona troubles leave bad taste in the mouth

Girona is one of the wealthiest cities in Spain. Situated 100 kilometres north of Barcelona, close to the border with France, it’s home to many of the world’s leading cyclists. They appreciate the climate, decent air and rail connections, the nearby Pyrenees for climbing and the beautiful coastal roads of the Costa Brava. Package tourism to some of the less salubrious resorts further south helped make Girona wealthy.

Gerundense are largely happy with their lot. They had El Bulli, officially the best restaurant in the world until it closed in 2011, nearby. Not to worry. El Celler Can Roca, in central Girona, was voted the best restaurant in the world for 2013. You can’t get a table, but it’s a decent claim: the city with less than 100,000 – slightly bigger than its twin city Wakefield - coming up with the best restaurant on the planet twice in a decade.

Even the silly tourist who booked a flight to Genoa and ended up in the budget airline hub of Girona couldn’t complain too much – though he did when he saw signs in Catalan and not Italian.

Girona has never been a football city, thought it has produced numerous Barcelona players. Tito Vilanova is from nearby, as is Everton’s on-loan Gerard Deulofeu.

The city’s football team were founded in 1930 and have spent more time in the third level than any other. As recently as 2006, they were playing in the regional fourth level in a league where the average crowd was 400 and some club stadiums consist of a few benches by the side of a pitch.

In 2009, Girona were promoted to Spain’s second tier for the first time in 50 years. Their Montelivi ground was still fraying and only had seating on three sides; their budget was typical of that of a mid-table second division club.

They finished 16th and 14th in 2010, the year a consortium funded by Barcelona-based businessmen Josep Delgado bought 99 per cent of the shares in the club. He made money in a mining company with global interests and headquartered in Germany and Girona. He’s usually based in Barcelona, but he also lives in Dubai, the USA and the Congo. Like you do.

He said that he wanted to take the club into the Primera Liga for the first time, that the club would build a new stadium and a new sports city. The team improved and the team improved. They were in a play-off position for promotion to the Primera Liga in 2010-11, before fading and finishing 11th.

Last season, under coach Joan Francesc Ferrer Sicilia - 'Rubi' to everyone - they improved further and pushed for promotion. By March they were second in the table behind runaway leaders Elche, but then, inexplicably, they lost 4-2 to bottom-of-the-table and already relegated Xerez. At home. It was Xerez’s first win in seven months.

It was revealed this week that the Girona captain was told that Xerez would lose the game for 120,000 euros, as would be fitting form. Girona refused – and lost. Girona later claimed that someone had paid Xerez money to “perform”. What a sordid affair.

Girona rallied in subsequent games. They beat Barca B at home when Deulofeu was a frustrated and easily riled figure against the wily old pro and former Espanyol player (and qualified journalist) Moises Hurtado.

Girona finished fourth and made the play-offs, where they beat Madrid side Alcorcon to reach the final. The club paid for 300 fans to travel on the shiny new AVE train which serves the city. Twice that number travelled to Almeria for the play-off final, a journey which would take 11 hours by road. Despite losing the home leg, they travelled enthusiastically and spilled onto the station singing. They lost.

The team were treated as heroes (but not to a meal of squid ink and mushy peas infused with clown tears, essence of nappy rash and pre-vomit bile – or whatever they eat in El Celler Can Roca, which is rather experimental) when they returned, with a reception near the glorious old town. And then they started to leave.

Many of the players were on one-year contracts, as has become the norm in economically challenged Spanish football. Rivals saw that they did well and signed them up. Rubi went to Barcelona in a senior coaching role. He briefly found himself in charge after Tito Vilanova stepped down as due to illness.

Girona are in a flux because theirs is not a club without controversy – and not only the match-fixing for which they are innocent. A warrant is out for the extradition and arrest of Delgado, Girona’s paymaster. The Spanish authorities accuse him of several financial crimes and tax evasion. This has added to uncertainty at the club, with rumours swirling, especially with the exodus of players, that Girona are up for sale.

There’s a problem: the authorities can’t find Delgado. A journalist has tracked him down to Poland and Delgado insists that the players are for sale, but that the club isn’t.

A few weeks of the season to start, Girona fans haven’t got a clue what to expect. They could find solace with a meal in the world’s best restaurant, not that they’d get a table. And, as they’ve found with their owner, there’s no such thing as a free meal ticket when your club is taken over by someone promising the earth using money made from the earth. It ends in tears more often than not, tears of a clown.

By Andy Mitten - on Twitter @AndyMitten