A small Catalan club with a stadium capacity of 13,286 currently sits third in La Liga. Its net spend since promotion in 2022 amounts to less than €20 million. The stuff of fairy tales? You’d like to think.
Back in April, Girona FC announced themselves as worthy newcomers to Spain’s top division. A 4-2 victory over Real Madrid impressing many.
For Valentin Castellanos, it was his magical night. His four goals swatting Madrid away. It was a one man show, scoring more than any other player had against the Galacticos this century. Born in Mendoza, Argentina, his name now firmly in the lights of Girona.
In only their third season in Spain’s top division, Girona FC eventually finished in a more than respectable 10th. It was a season of steady progress and excitement. Manager Míchel’s quick-moving attacking style landing them 58 goals, the fifth highest in the division.
A brave approach to deploy in an opening campaign.
The 55 goals conceded perhaps a reflection of this risk. But to play with a high press on a low budget and still achieve a positive goal difference in your opening campaign is a commendable achievement.
This time out, the dream has only got greater. Four wins from five have left Girona joint second in the league with 13 points from a possible 15. The Estadi Montilivi hardly able to contain itself at the unlikely rise of their Catalan minnows. Purring at the possibility of European football.
But, this isn’t quite the fan-led revolution of Union Berlin.
Or the romance of the beautiful game.
This is no Catalan fairytale. Girona FC’s ownership model is far from it.
Girona and the CFG
In 2017, a little group called CFG (City Football Group) acquired a 44% stake in the club — since risen to 47%. If you weren’t already aware, CFG is Manchester City’s international goliath of a holding company. Abu Dhabi’s outlet for monopolizing the world of competitive football.
The Catalan side were simply the latest in their efforts to create a worldwide network of clubs, constantly exchanging players and information according to each’s need. Most importantly, solidifying Man City’s place at the upper echelons of world football.
In Girona though, the links were more familial. City manager Pep Guardiola’s brother, Pere, already owned 80% of the club with business partner Juame Roures, reduced to 44% in the deal with CFG and 16% in the latest rejigging.
Back in 2015, the duo had flocked to save the club from bankruptcy.
Heroic selfless saviours? Well, how do you think the story goes?
Pere Guardiola is one of the most successful football agents on the planet. Think Luis Suárez, Andrés Iniesta, Thiago Alcantara. His list of clients goes on.
According to Mundo Deportivo, at the time of buying Girona, he and Roures already represented at least three players in the Girona squad and it’s sporting director Quique Cárcel through their Media Base Sports agency.
To put this in context, in England the FA’s rule E4 states that “an intermediary shall not have an interest in a club.” Intermediary being agent. In Spain, no such regulation exits. So, Pere and Roures were free to own a club they already financially benefited from as agents.
From here, City and Girona’s links began.
Weeks after their takeover, a deal was agreed for Girona to become a feeder club for Manchester City. A total of twelve City players would be loaned to Girona between 2015 and 2017, when the CFG officially bought a stake in the club.
None of this is a coincidence. City CEO Ferran Soriano and director of football Txiki Begiristain had long known the Guardiola brothers since they held similar positions at Barcelona whilst Pep was manager.
In fact, the CFG was originally a pipedream from Soriano’s time as vice-president at the Camp Nou. His ambitions progressing no further than early planning stages as, in 2008, he resigned from the Catalan club in protest of Joan Laporta’s then presidency.
In City, he would find more willing participants, joining the club as CEO in 2012 and setting up CFG the following year with the creation of MLS franchise New York City FC. Today, they now have partial or majority stakes in thirteen clubs across five continents, Girona being the sixth of these.
It wasn’t until after Pep Guardiola’s much anticipated arrival in Manchester, in 2016, that Girona were added to the books. Conspiracy theorists could point to this timeline, and the moving of Media Base Sports offices (Pere and Roures’ agency) from London to Manchester in 2013, as an example of a long-planned financially beneficial acquisition.
When it comes to the CFG though, conspiracy theories are hardly needed. Soriano is open, in fact proud, about their plans.
In response to accusations of this model creating unfair advantage, he spun it back as a positive, revolutionizing entity, telling ESPN, “We have not invented this, this is how many industries work. The magic is to do it in an industry that has never done it before.”
For Soriano, it is quite literally a world of untapped possibilities.
The prize: financial and sporting domination.
Rocky start in Girona
It wasn’t exactly domination in the early years of CFG’s Girona ownership. The club were relegated in 2019 and only returned to La Liga in 2022. Yet, in the meantime, they have, like other CFG clubs, been molded into the Manchester City style.
A high press, short passes, building from the back. Even goalkeepers in the CFG network have to fit the modern mould by impressing with their feet. Girona have been spared the full makeover that others have not. Their crests and colours not turning blue like that of Mumbai City FC or New York City FC.
“What we hope is that the fans understand that it will have City inside,” Soriano told ESPN. “The way you have Intel inside your computer.”
For clubs steeped in history and locality like Girona, the belief at CFG is they want to celebrate the fan-facing culture. As Soriano alludes to: change the inside programming, not the public facing one.
In fact, Girona supporters themselves are doing the rebranding. A fan consultation and vote was held in 2021 on the changing of the club’s badge for the 2022/23 season to emphasise the club’s name and historic red and white stripes. Over 3,000 fans had their say.
So, it is not all soulless micromanagement from afar. The Tozudos still have an identity, that which is heavily influenced by desires for Catalan independence and attacking, attractive football.
Have they benefited from CFG’s involvement?
It opened the doors to a scouting network and level of analytics no club of similar size could dream of.
Their Galactico destroyer and top scorer last season, Castellanos, was a product of the CFG system, being loaned to them from fellow CFG team New York City FC. His 13 goals invaluable to their mid-table finish.
At first sight, their low spending nature adds to this romantic painting of them as the underdogs but that is a deception at best.
Since the takeover, Girona have brought in 15 players from the CFG network, whether on loan or permanent deals. In fact, with the sale of Pedro Porro to Man City for €12 million, the club’s dealings with the CFG network has resulted in a €7 million profit.
A net gain of ten players for €7 million profit. If that is not gaming the system, then it is severely flirting with the exploitation of it.
This should be a story of a small Catalan town finally having their moment in the sun. Their heyday. But it is not. It is the story of the City Football Group’s slow takeover of football on a cross-continental level. A group that already has 25 major trophies to its name in under 10 years of existence.
The story of the sport’s governing bodies once again falling behind. FIFA and it’s associates unable to keep an increasingly unequal game on any sort of believable playing field. Who needs a European Super League when you can just dominate every one that exists?
Capitalism is owned by the monopoly. So why shouldn’t its latest bedfellow football be too?