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Champions League not guaranteed just yet – but Girona (and their ground) are ready


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It is 8pm on a Tuesday in Girona and fans are already congregating outside the Estadi Montilivi. Villarreal are in town, and nobody wants to miss a game in this remarkable season.

Girona hope this midweek crowd will be a common sight next year at Montilivi, where they are planning to host their Champions League games. La Liga’s third-placed side qualified for a spot in Europe’s premier club competition for the first time with a 4-2 win against local rivals Barcelona this month — a fitting way to round off a campaign the likes of which fans doubt they will probably never see again.

However, their Champions League place is not guaranteed just yet — Girona must detach themselves from City Football Group (CFG) if they want to take part. CFG, Manchester City’s parent company, owns a 47 per cent stake in Girona, and the rules mean that, as things stand, both teams cannot play in the Champions League.

CFG and UEFA are in talks to find a solution after Europe’s governing body presented the investment group with divestment options. CFG must comply by June 3 to avoid possible penalties, which could include one club being demoted to the Europa League. If City win the Premier League, that would be Girona as the lower-placed side (they can only finish second or third in La Liga).

Sources close to the group — who, like all those cited in this article, asked to remain anonymous to protect relationships — say CFG is expected to sell 17 per cent of its stake in Girona to a third party. All CFG members who are on Girona’s board of administrators — executives John MacBeath, Simon Cliff and Ingo Bank — are expected to leave their roles and nobody at Girona will interact with their CFG counterparts.

Girona during their match against Villarreal on Tuesday (Alex Caparros via Getty Images)

It is yet to be decided how the divestment procedure will impact the players Girona have on loan from CFG clubs. Those include the Brazilian duo of Yan Couto and Savio, both of whom have starred for the team this season. The winger Savio — more commonly known as Savinho — is on loan from Troyes and has been linked with a transfer to City this summer. UEFA rules state that teams under multi-club ownership cannot transfer players between them in the season in which they play in the same competition.

Sources at Girona are confident this divestment process will happen smoothly and that the club will take its place in the competition.

Whatever comes next, Girona will host European football at their 14,624-capacity stadium — something that also wasn’t clear until a week ago. Located two kilometres from the city centre, Montilivi is a small old-fashioned stadium which was built in 1970, when Girona were playing in the fourth tier of Spanish football.

Girona underwent weeks of discussions with UEFA about whether the ground met their requirements. They were working based on two scenarios: staying at Montilivi or being forced to play their European games out of the city, most likely at Barcelona’s temporary Estadi Olimpic Lluis Companys stadium, a 90-minute drive away.



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Girona were in touch with Barcelona’s city council and explored the possibility of the move. It would have meant an extra €5million (£4.3m; $5.4m;) in stadium revenue from tickets and hospitality packages, given the Lluis Companys was ready to host European football and can hold up to 50,000 fans.

But none of Girona’s key decision-makers were convinced.

“The Champions League has to be played in Girona,” a senior source said. “There can’t be another way.

“We owe that to the city and the fans who are from Girona. The prospect of playing at Montjuic (the hill where the Lluis Companys sits) had to be analysed and the financial dimension was something we wanted to be aware of. But, as a strategic decision, staying in Girona is what we had to do.”

Girona feared they would not be able to make the necessary improvements to their stadium when discussions with UEFA started. That involved having a press room with a capacity for 80 reporters (the current one holds 28), creating separate working areas for journalists and photographers, and having 10 TV broadcast rooms and 100 desks for reporters in the stands.

This season, Montilivi has one TV ‘cabin’ and less than half that number of desks.


Montilivi Stadium before Tuesday’s match (Alex Caparros via Getty Images)

Parking spaces and hospitality facilities needed to be improved. And Girona knew UEFA rules would not allow the temporary seating attached to three of their stands that helps them reach full capacity in La Liga. They pointed to high-profile sports competitions such as the French Open in tennis and the Masters at Augusta for golf to plead their case but UEFA rejected their request — meaning there will be just 9,000 seats available on European nights.

The rest of Girona’s plan received approval from UEFA last Friday. They estimate the renovations will cost them around €600,000, but senior sources say they are not worried by that or the €5million hit that comes with not playing at the Lluis Companys, even though it is a significant blow for a club whose record transfer fee is the €7m they spent on Ukrainian striker Artem Dovbyk last summer.

“There’s another way to see it,” a senior source said. “Staying at Montilivi is a sporting bonus for us. It makes us better to play at home, with our people. You could say there’s a better chance to make up this €5m by getting good results here and the subsequent prize money.”

Girona even explored the possibility of building a new stand over the summer to replace the temporary seats at Montilivi. But architects consulted by the club said this would be impossible before the main phase of the Champions League started in September given the unstable foundations of the hill next to the ground.

Girona expect to have around 6,700 seats for home fans. Around 12,000 of them were at Montilivi on Tuesday night, despite La Liga setting an unsociable 10pm kick-off time for a cold and rainy day in Girona. They fell to a 1-0 defeat against Villarreal — only their second home loss of the season after being beaten by Real Madrid in September.

“We’re just delighted that European football will stay here and that it’s not moved out to Barcelona,” says Guillem, a fan who has been a regular at Montilivi for the past three seasons.

“This club is really attached to the city — we’re starting to see a generation of kids who support Girona instead of Barca. Let’s see if the club can fulfil all the ticket demands from Girona fans.”



‘Girona is a small club with a big mentality – we deserve our Champions League place’

(Girona at Montilivi Stadium earlier this month by Alex Caparros via Getty Images)

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