Girona: How Catalonia club are punching above their weight to share lead of La Liga

The fiercely proud and patriotic land that is Catalonia is no stranger to flying its flag through its achievements in football.

But this season it is not the exploits of Barcelona that have been dazzling the footballing world but rather the achievements of the region’s second city, Girona, and especially those of their head coach, Miguel Angel Sanchez Munoz known as Michel.

Girona currently sit joint top of the table with Real Madrid on 48 points after a first half of the season that has seen them score more goals than anyone else (46) and suffer just one defeat, a 3-0 loss at home to Carlo Ancelotti’s side in September last year.

To win La Liga – talk currently banned by the club itself – would class as one of football’s greatest stories and dwarf Leicester City’s Premier League title win of 2016.

But how has a club, with an attendance of just 200 at the turn of the century, even got themselves in contention?

From 200 fans to Europe’s elite

Established 93 years ago Girona didn’t even make it into the second tier of football until 2008.

Historically, most of the city’s footballing fans from the city have supported Barcelona or even Espanyol. Despite playing in the smallest stadium currently in La Liga’s top flight, back as recently as 1999 the 15,000 capacity Estadi Montilivi must have looked cavernous with about 200 fans dotted around it watching their side play in the fifth tier of Spanish football.

But things started to change when the side finally went up to Spain’s second tier back in 2008 following back-to-back promotions. They made it into the top flight for the first time in their then-87-year history after finishing second in the table at the end of the 2016-17 season.

The arrival at the club at the end of the 2014-15 season of Guardiola, not Pep, but his younger brother Pere, revolutionised things at the club.

Pere came to the club with a background in football marketing and development with companies like Nike. Back in 2009 he had co-founded his own agency and gone on to become one of the most influential agents in football with a list of clients including his brother, Andres Iniesta and Luis Suarez.

Despite relegation a couple of seasons later, Girona returned to the top flight in 2022, winning the play-off 3-1 against Tenerife, after two seasons of play-off heartbreak.

Their return was masterminded by coach Michel who had joined the club at the start of the 2021-22 promotion-winning campaign. A change of fortune for the manager that had received his marching orders from his two previous clubs – Rayo Vallecano and Huesca – both of whom he had previously led into the first division only to be sacked when things started to go wrong.

One of the keys to Michel’s first season at the club was the owners keeping faith in him when the team found itself at the wrong end of the table. They ended up promoted and then finishing 10th in their first campaign back, despite the loss of key players.

An eventual Xavi successor at Barcelona?

Michel has a bit of Pep Guardiola about him although he is a long way from being a footballing innovator or visionary.

While he is certainly intense, the 48-year-old has got a clear idea of what he wants and how to achieve it on the pitch, and has the ability to improve players and change his team’s tactics mid-game. Michel’s basic approach is based on possession when required, but also directness and counter-attacking – a mix not too dissimilar to that of Manchester City.

He also knows how to direct his players, which is something that few managers are able to do successfully and he has a keen eye for the smaller details.

Even though he has regular contact with Pep Guardiola, he appreciates where he is now and where he has come from.

Previous experiences have shown that when you are the ‘minnows’ swimming around the La Liga shark tank, it is frequently ephemeral and only achieved as a result of all the hard work that is done on a day-to-day basis.

So while others are making comparisons with Leicester City’s monumental title-winning achievement, for now Michel is taking nothing for granted other than perhaps the satisfaction of knowing that the 48 points his side has amassed to date will guarantee top-flight safety. And, yes, perhaps the possibility of reaching Europe is one that has been discussed in the changing rooms.

His parents ran a fruit shop in the working class Vallecas district of Madrid and because they had to work up to 12 hours a day to put food on the table, Michel and his three brothers were brought up by their grandparents.

Vallecas was his home and he would go on to become a hero at Rayo Vallecano, where he made 425 appearances over two spells at the club before becoming their coach in 2017. It taught him to integrate because the area was heavily populated with many immigrants and people of all origins.

And wherever he went, he did so with the words of his grandmother in his ears. “Adapt where you go,” she told him.

Michel’s attention to detail, and how to adapt, has not gone unnoticed either.

One of the first things he did when he arrived in Girona was start taking lessons in Catalan.

Michel first started to speak it shortly after he arrived in Girona without his family. He was befriended by an elderly couple in the flat next door who introduced him not only to the Catalan language, but to some of the region’s culinary delights.

The fans adore him for it and are frequently heard chanting, “Michel..Catala!!”. They refer to him as ‘Un dels nostres’ (‘one of our own’) and recently presented him with a flag picturing him wearing the classic ‘barretina’, the woollen hat that is symbolic of Catalonia.

Not surprisingly, his achievements have earned him the envious gaze of bigger clubs around Europe’s big leagues, with Bayern Munich and Newcastle rumoured to be sniffing around.

But the stories doing the rounds that he is on the verge of leaving Girona and finding a bigger home for his talents are way off the mark. For the time being he is going nowhere, although in the future I see him as a perfect fit for the manager’s seat at Catalonia’s big brother, Barcelona, once Xavi’s tenure is over.

Girona chairman Pere Guardiola is realistic about his coach’s future.

He said recently: “He can leave whenever he wants, he’s earned it. If a team comes in and he’s excited about it, thank you and goodbye.

“If he received an offer from Bayern and had a contract with Girona, I would take him by car to Munich myself! What he has done in Girona is something to be eternally grateful for.”

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top