Jonas Ramalho on Girona's La Liga promotion: "The beginning of something"
Damned no more, Girona Fútbol Club will be in the first division next season, finally making their debut well into their ninth decade.
"History!" declared Carles Puigdemont, president of the Catalan Generalitat. Closure, too. Girona striker Fran Sandaza likened it to a "wound that hadn't healed." Defender Jonas Ramalho called it a "thorn" in their sides. "Well," he says, "we've removed it now."
Girona has 98,255 residents, boasts 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 Girona finished fourth, third and fourth, losing in the playoffs each time, two of those in the final (the top two clubs are automatically promoted, and one more is promoted via a playoff). 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 sent 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 playoffs, where it would be tempting to say that Real Zaragoza destroyed them, except they had already been destroyed.
Two years on, Girona 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, Girona had a seven-point lead and reached the penultimate week knowing that a solitary point would do. Importantly, it would do for survival-seeking Zaragoza too, and the 0-0 draw was 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 manager Pablo Machín has likened his side to Atlético Madrid. There's the pupas thing, for a start: The sense that Girona 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," Ramalho says. "It has worked well, it is what took us to the first division."
The first division. First. Division.
In the first division.
"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.
Not long ago, the club counted its supporters in the hundreds. Girona's Estadi Montilivi holds just over 9,000 but rarely fills. As this past 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 other people from Girona, he confesses to being a Barcelona supporter.
"Traditionally, this is a city of Barca fans," Machín 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 100 kilometers 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, the club 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," says Mayor Marta Madrenas. "We've been waiting a long time for this."
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 least a little. The 9,000-seat stadium, which is municipally owned, will be expanded by over 3,000 seats. Portable toilets will be replaced by permanent ones. The club is conscious of the need to capitalise on the moment to build a fan base, encouraging fidelity and identification with the team, seeking to prevent fans from 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 Media Base Sports, which is associated with Jaume Roures, owner of the country's TV rights, and led by Pere Guardiola, the brother of Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola.
Through this connection, a relationship has been built with Manchester City: Cárcel, Girona's sporting director, admitted that he talks to City director of football 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 Girona, albeit only one this season. 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, Girona 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."
Next season already will be, and there is no break at the boardroom level, either: They're building toward 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," Ramalho says, 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 played only 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 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 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.