Who are Girona? Exploring their ties to Barcelona, Pep Guardiola
Barcelona host Girona on Saturday in an interesting clash for the league leaders. Sam Marsden explains the connections between the two teams...
Q: So, Pep Guardiola's two Catalan teams meet this weekend in La Liga?
A: You could say that. Obviously, he was a player at Barcelona and then the coach -- a very successful one -- so regardless of where he's working, he will always support the club. There's never particularly between a link between Guardiola and Girona, though, until now.
Q: Can you explain that link? It's still slightly confusing.
A: Well, not only are Girona the latest addition to The City Football Group's empire, which also includes Manchester City, New York City, Melbourne City, Yokohama F. Marinos and Club Atletico Torque, but they're also part-owned by his brother, Pere Guardiola, who is also Luis Suarez's and Andres Iniesta's agent. City and Guardiola have both owned a 44.3 percent stake in the club since last August.
Q: Is there not a conflict of interest there?
A: There are certainly some grey areas. In England, an intermediary (basically an agent) can't be directly involved with a club, for obvious reasons. However, the same rule doesn't exist in Spain, so Guardiola's brother is OK on that count. As for City, a problem could arise if both teams ended up in the same European competition one day. UEFA's rules say that "no individual or legal entity may have control or influence over more than one club participating in a UEFA club competition." At 44.3 percent, City don't have a majority stake in Girona, but should it come to it, they may have to argue that they don't have a "decisive influence in the decision-making" at the Catalan club -- another definition of control by UEFA.
Q: All sounds complicated. Is it worth it? What do both clubs get out of it?
A: It's helped Girona become financially stable, while they also benefit from borrowing players from City. The Premier League side, meanwhile, have a club in La Liga they can use as a finishing school for their young talent. Perhaps the biggest winner is The City Football Group. An interesting article from December detailed why they invest in certain clubs and in certain markets around the world and what they get out of it. Girona allows them to tap into and carry influence in the Spanish market while they've already got a foothold in England, the United States, Australia, Japan and Uruguay.
Q: OK, so it could be more helpful for Girona than for City?
A: It certainly looks that way at the moment. Aside from the financial stability, if they establish themselves as a La Liga side, they could well benefit from tapping into City's talented squad. This season they have four City players on loan, although only Pablo Maffeo is playing regularly. He man-marked Lionel Messi in the first game against Barca to great effect and is a really promising right-back. The other three (Douglas Luiz, Larry Kayode and Aleix Garcia) haven't played as often.
Q: How are Girona doing this season?
A: Going into Saturday's game at Barca, they're eighth in the table, which is impressive considering this is their first-ever top-flight season. They have held Atletico Madrid twice and beaten Real Madrid. Manager Pablo Machin told Diario Sport this week that staying up would be the equivalent of finding a girlfriend. If they qualify for Europe, he added, it would be like finding the woman of your dreams. They're currently just four points off Villarreal in sixth.
Q: Wow. How are they doing so well? And how do they play?
A: Machin deserves a lot of credit for their success. He took over in 2014 when they looked set for relegation to the third tier of Spanish football. He managed to keep them up, and in the following two seasons, they missed out on promotion via the playoffs. Last season, they finally achieved their goal, finishing second to Levante. Girona play a 3-5-2 formation and are the only Spanish side to do so. Teams have struggled to counter it and Atletico and Real both tried to match their formation: quite the sign of respect. It also helps that they've got goal-scorers. Former Middlesbrough striker Cristhian Stuani has 13 (one more than Cristiano Ronaldo) and Portu has nine.
Q: They're not built in the image of Man City or Barca, then?
A: Not really. Machin does things his way. It's unlikely they would have had as much success if they were so focused on playing in a certain manner. He does like to keep possession when possible, but he's a pragmatist and knows that at a club like Girona, it won't always be possible. That adaptability has served them well.
Q: It must be an exciting time for the city. Are they getting lots of support?
A: That's a funny one, actually. There was an awkward moment last summer when they had an open-top bus parade to celebrate promotion, with a large percentage of the city's 97,586 population turning out on the streets. Most of them hadn't been there throughout the season, though. "Where were you in the winter, dogs? You've appeared from nowhere," shouted one player during the parade. The thing is, Girona has never particularly been a football city. There is no rich football history. Machin has also lamented the lack of support, although attendances are rising -- their stadium's capacity is only 13,450 -- and the mood is changing. Machin said as much this week, praising the fans for their support against Leganes last weekend.
Q: They must be excited about the Barcelona game on Saturday?
A: You'd imagine so. It's the first time they'll ever play Barca away from home in the top flight. Unfortunately, there's not much of an away culture in Spanish football, and in a ground as big as Camp Nou, it's unlikely they'll be able to make much of an atmosphere.
Q: It's still a local derby, though. Could it get feisty?
A: It could. After all, it's still early days in terms of the rivalry. Traditionally, though, a lot of people from Girona support Barcelona anyway: there's almost 100km (62 miles) between the two cities. Barca themselves have advertised tickets for the game under the slogan "The New Derby," but that feels more like a dig at Espanyol (whom they share a city with) than a play to build up the intensity of their relationship with Girona.
Q: So it's a friendly rivalry?
A: So far at least, yes. When the two teams met in September in the build-up to the Catalan referendum on independence, it was very much a case of two teams fighting for the same cause. Girona is perhaps the most decidedly pro-independence city in Catalonia -- Catalan President Carles Puigdemont is the city's former mayor -- and both sets of supporters were united in chants of independence. There was no hostility on show, although that can quickly change in football. Especially if there's a bad tackle, a wrong offside call or an upset that ends Barca's unbeaten La Liga record...
Samuel Marsden covers Barcelona for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @SamuelMarsden.