The taxi driver knows where we’re going , but I decide to confirm, just in case. I timidly offer the Catalan version of the stadium, the Estadi Montivili on the southern margins of the compact city of Girona, but he replies with the Spanish ‘Ah – al partido? Ya lo sabia’ (Ah – you’re going to the game? I thought as much).
He whisks my son and me through the busy tree-lined summer streets until we arrive at a road-block guarded by an increased police presence – the unfortunate fruit of the recent incident 60 miles south in Barcelona – but the stewards nod us through and the driver snakes us through the barriers onto the last leg, from where we can see the skeletal scaffolds of the back of the stadium, hastily constructed in the last 15 days to bring up the capacity from 9,000 to 13,500, a temporary step in what the club hopes will be a permanent development.
The affable young driver bids us farewell and laments the fact that he cannot see the game, the first at the top level for the modest club Girona FC. ‘So you’re a Girona fan?’ asks my son, to which the man surprisingly replies, ‘Yes – but I support Atlético too!’ at which he lets out a guffaw, gives us the thumbs up, and is gone.
It’s a big night for Girona, their first appearance in the top flight since their foundation in 1930, gifted a home opener to celebrate the occasion due to the unfinished work on Atlético’s new stadium and the fixture, originally scheduled for Madrid, being switched to Girona.
In the long queue it’s impossible to distinguish the home fans from the Atlético visitors, over here on a balmy August holiday evening. Girona’s red and white stripes are almost identical to those of Atlético, but with their backs to you almost all the youngsters from Madrid have ‘Griezmann’ clearly signalling their origins.
Once inside, we clamber up to the scaffolding seats of the high bank beneath the north goal, and take in the colourful scene. The flag-waving cacophony gives way to a minute’s silence for the victims of Las Ramblas – impeccably observed – and then the racket returns as the teams line up for Girona’s big moment, 90 years in the making. The stadium is wide and open, with trees behind the opposite goal. The sightline is fantastic, unobstructed either by roof or stanchions, but it’ll be cold up here in the winter.
It’s going to be a tough opener for the hosts, but they might as well measure themselves up against the best. Coach Pablo Machín, very much the man responsible for getting this side promoted, has said as much in his pre-match press conference. If they can perform tonight, then they’ll know where they stand.
It’s easy to see Girona’s rise as Eibar-esque, but only in strictly footballing terms. In geographical measurements, the city’s 97,000 population quadruples that of Eibar, and even the relatively small 13,500 crowd doubles that of the Basque club. You wonder why Girona haven’t made the top flight before now, but it may be that the smaller Catalan clubs have simply never been able to compete with the draw of Barcelona, any young talent always finding its way to La Masia, never to return. The satellite towns and districts of Madrid (Getafe, Leganes, Rayo etc) have managed to find a way, but the smaller Catalan cities have found it harder to function, football-wise.
Indeed, as recently as 1997, Girona were bumbling around in the regional division north of the Catalan leagues, their fortunes upturning in 2010 when they were bought by a local business consortium led by Ramon Vilaró, now the president. Twice denied in the play-offs in the previous two seasons, they finally made it through automatic promotion last campaign, finishing second to a strong Levante side.
Now Manchester City – who lost a friendly game 1-0 here only a week ago – are close to making their relationship with Girona official, fishing them from the waters into the expanding net of their City Football Group and loaning out five of their players to them, three of whom are in the starting line-up tonight. It might seem to kill the romance slightly, but the squad contains a healthy local dose of eight players, and Catalans in general abound. This is no club of mercenaries.
Yellow-shirted Atlético control the opening stages, Griezmann’s new floppy blond locks resplendent in the soft evening light, but there’s no punch to their play. Fernando Torres looks overweight and a frustrated Yannick Carrasco can’t get into the game.
Little by little Girona start to believe in themselves, confident on the ball and constantly attacking down their right-hand side, where Pablo Pons and Peré Maffe are beginning to trouble Lucas Hernandez. Pons is one of the local heroes and was a key figure in last season’s promotion. Small and strong, he draws Atlético’s defence towards centre so that every time there is space for Maffe to get down the right and cross.
Atlético begin to look nervous but the goal eventually arrives from the other side, Alex Granell swinging over a nasty little cross which Christhian Stuani, fresh from Middleboro, meets perfectly with a salmon leap above the Atlético stream (minus Diego Godin) to nod perfectly into a corner where no Jan Oblak can reach. The place erupts, and tough-looking youths hug children and grannies alike.
The mayhem reaches nuclear proportions three minutes later when the same player nods in a messy scramble in the area. The young man to my left punches the air and drops his mobile phone in the excitement, then proceeds to scream in my ear (in Spanish) as I hand it to him that ‘That’s half as many as he scored all season at Middlesboro’. I’ve found my local informant, and he seems friendly enough. To his left, a couple of Atlético fans droop glumly in their seats, wishing they were elsewhere.
Aleix turns out to be a mine of information. Now a referee in the local leagues, he played for Girona with his twin brother until he was 14. ‘I played with Pons’ he tells me proudly. Then, in an attempt to dampen the euphoria he tells me that he considers many of today’s fans to be part-time supporters.
‘Let’s see if they’re here when the winter comes’ he grimaces.
‘They only really started coming when we got into the play-offs’ he tells me, as the crowd continues to bounce around in joy, ‘but hey – if they stay I’m happy.’
When I ask him why it’s been an issue, he explains that many are Barcelona fans (of course) but if they’re not, they support Real Madrid. Anticipating my confusion he explains that his mother is from Girona but his father is from Extremadura. ‘There are a lot like us’ he concludes.
In the second half Atlético look sterner and more organised, until Griezmann goes down in the area below us, apparently fouled by Gorka Iraizoz. ‘He dived’ snaps Aleix, with the confidence of a TV referee pundit. Griezmann says something indiscreet to the real ref, gets his marching orders, and Atlético’s ten men hulk up into warfare mode and begin to control the game. Girona lose their shape and with Correa and Vietto now running the show, it doesn’t take long to get the two goals they need for the point. At the death, Jan Oblak makes an amazing save from the excellent Portu and everyone goes home reasonably happy.
The game might have said more about Atlético’s ability to save lost causes than Girona’s potential for staying up, but for prolonged periods the debutants looked more than competent, hustled and hassled well, and seemed to have a clear game plan. They won’t be easy to beat, by the looks of this entertaining opening encounter.