“The thorn that relegation has left me can only be removed by promotion,” said Cristhian Stuani, and so here he is again. There were other much easier exit routes – perhaps better ones too – but the Uruguayan striker chose a different route: longer and more difficult even than he imagined, but right somehow. Even when everything was wrong, even in those times when he could have been forgiven for wondering what he had done. He had chosen to seek redemption rather than escape; denied him so far, she brought him back to a familiar place. Where it takes him next, Sunday will decide.
It was in the summer of 2019 when Stuani said that. The first and so far the last experience of Girona Futbol Club in Primera had just come to a painful end. Beaten by Levante, they had been relegated on the penultimate day of their second season in the top flight and there was no guarantee they would be back. Most also expected their best players to come into their own. It’s the oldest story of all: the relegated team stripped, their best players picked up and sent to new clubs to balance the scores. They were not about to hang out in the second division. stuani certainly was not.
No one would expect him to do so, nor dare to make such demands. The club’s top scorer in the club’s first La Liga season on 21, Stuani was also the club’s top scorer in their second, with 19. He alone had scored 42% of their goals, directly involved in more than half of them . If anyone didn’t deserve to play in the second division, it was him – too good to go down. If anyone didn’t have to, it was him: offers arrived, including one from Barcelona. It was just a case where and when, surely, but towards the end of the transfer window, he extended his contract at the club instead. It wouldn’t be the last time.
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Stuani was staying in Girona, partly because it was home; it made him even more his place and him even more a hero. From six to thirteen, he had played for Atenas, the baby soccer club in Tala, about 100 miles from Montevideo. He had made his debut at Danubio, there had been a loan at Bellavista and then he had crossed the Atlantic to Reggina. He was only 20 years old. He played for Albacete, scoring 22 times to lift them from the second division. Levante followed, then Racing Santander, Espanyol and Middlesbrough.
He was already 31 when he arrived in Girona, a club and a city he really knew nothing about and owed nothing to. Well, not yet. His best years were supposed to be behind him, and no ties bound him. Surely no one expected him to become the top scorer in their entire history, and quite possibly their best player too, or a petition started to build a statue of him outside the stadium.
Still, Stuani described his arrival at Girona as love at first sight, and it worked on the pitch as well. He was better than anyone else, and that included himself. He was a revelation, breaking down barriers that no one expected. Those 21 and 19 goals had only been beaten by his year at Albacete in the second division: not always playing as a No.9, his previous seasons had scored four, seven, twelve, six, seven, nine and eight goals . If those numbers were reasons for wanting him to stay, they were also reasons for leaving.
There were other factors, however, something deeper if less tangible. They loved him and would love him more once he stayed. Girona is a beautiful place, the coast and the mountains nearby, the perfect climate and cuisine, and it had become my home. Then there was the loyalty, the club, a sense of belonging he hadn’t felt before. And, yes, the money was good too – although it could have been better elsewhere.
“I weighed everything and made the decision to stay,” Stuani said. “I had the chance to take other paths, and very good sports, but I chose to stay here. This is where I want to be. I supported the club and the club argued: they have been very good to me.”
But stillStuani could not play in the second division.
“When relegation was confirmed, it hit Cristhian hard,” said sporting director Quique Carcel. “I always knew he was happy in Girona and wanted to continue, but also that it was difficult because he had a lot of offers.”
By the end of the window, however, it was a reality: a second division side somehow hanging on to a first division star.
“I stayed to fight for a challenge that wasn’t easy at all,” Stuani said. “Hopefully we can go back up.”
That was three years ago now. Victory on Sunday against Tenerife in the second leg of the qualifying final (3 p.m. ET, stream live on ESPN+) and they will finally come back up.
Sixth in the league, after beating Eibar in the semi-finals, Girona drew 0-0 with Tenerife in the first leg of the final, having had 70 per cent possession and 16 shots to 3. If they can make it count in the second leg they will return to the Premier League, with that relegation thorn finally removed from Stuani’s side. They are on point now. The problem is, it looks a lot simpler than it is. This thorn is sunk deep, painful past experience.
Scorer of 29 league goals in the regular season in his first campaign in the Second Division, scorer of ten in his second despite injury having forced him out several times, and scorer of 22 goals this season, Stuani was the Pichichi (top scorer) in the division twice, trying to bring them back. It was close: it’s the third year in a row that they have qualified for the playoff final. Both times they played the second leg at home, everything seemed to fall into place perfectly, but they still didn’t go up. Last year, after winning 2-1 away at Rayo Vallecano, they lost 2-0 at home after playing almost the entire second half with 10 men. The previous year, a goal from Pere Milla in the 96th minute saw them lose to Elche.
Now they are back, slipping past Real Oviedo and sixth in the head-to-head record, then beating Eibar.
Poor Eibar: The Basque side, leading most of the year, had somehow gone from champions and automatic promotion to third and a playoff position on the final day with a 91st-minute loss to Alcorcon already relegated. Then, after winning 1-0 at Girona 1-0, another 91st-minute goal knocked them out in the semi-finals. Stuani marked it, of course, still chasing that promise. And so it’s the third year in a row that Girona have reached the playoff final, every season since relegation. And so it was time to try again, another chance to break the spell.
He’s even bigger than he looks, going back beyond these last three seasons and beyond Stuani, like some sort of curse of the club. Twice as many Girona have reached a playoff final and lost: they were also denied by Almeria in 2013 and by Osasuna in 2016. That’s four times while no other team has lost more than once . It could have been even crueler in 2015, even though it was the year they didn’t make it to the final: a defeat on the last day of the season denied them an automatic promotion spot, forcing them instead in the playoffs. There they beat Zaragoza 3-0 in the semi-final first leg. Thinking it was done, resting the players for the final, they lost the second leg 4–1 and went out.
In their last eight seasons in the second division, Girona have finished: fourth, fifteenth, third, fourth, second, fifth, fifth and sixth, reaching six qualifiers. Half of all years in which the current playoff system was set up, Girona has been there. (In two years they were a Premier League team; in another, 2016-17, their only promotion season, they automatically moved up to second place.) They have never increased through the playoffs.
In 2017, one of the few years that Girona weren’t there, as they automatically went up, Sunday’s opponents Tenerife were. Winners 1-0 in the first leg against Getafe, they lost the second leg 3-1. For the Canarians, this appearance in the playoffs – based on a solid and deep defense – is more unexpected than that of Girona. Their wait was also longer. This is only their second playoff since returning to the second division of the regionalized, semi-amateur, 83-team, four-division third tier. It has been 12 years since they were in the first division.
Tickets for that game sold out in 14 minutes, they said, and it’s no wonder.
In the first leg of the final last week, Luis Miguel Ramis’ side did a superb job of denying anything to Girona. Now it all comes down to one night they’ve both been waiting for. Two clubs chasing a place that is everything to them.
“I don’t know if it’s going to be the right year or not,” said Girona manager Michel, all too aware of the bad luck that seems to be dogging them. Maybe, hopes Girona, playing away and not at home will help. Maybe finishing sixth this time will be too, the only position they haven’t finished in before. Maybe it’s the third lucky time. Or sixth, even. At this point you will cling to anything. Maybe it’s just time, that thorn finally pulled out of their flesh. Or maybe it’s just rightfinally justice.
In 2020, the season Stuani stayed and promised to bring them straight back, he had scored twice against Almeria in the semi-finals to take his league goal tally to an astonishing 31 and his side in the final, on the doorstep of Primera. There, against Elche, he was sent off. The card was hard, he felt, and it hurt – it had all been taken away from him.
“Hours pass and I still can’t find an explanation,” he said afterwards. “All I can do is pick myself up, like I’ve done my whole life. Football has hit us hard but I’m sure it will pay us back one day.”