It was Montilivi that watched it, that lived it, and that would have loved a different ending. Montilivi that deserved it, too
Welcome to Miami,” the sign said. Scribbled in black pen on white cardboard and fixed to the fence by the stadium where long lines of tables were laid out and the atmosphere was building, it greeted them as they arrived – football fans heading to the biggest game of the year. Mostly, they strolled from town, through narrow, old streets, yellow ribbons attached to every lamppost, along the river where the houses overlooking the water are brightly coloured, not pastel, across the bridge and up a gentle hill in the sunshine. There, past concrete police controls was another sign, bigger and more professionally produced, yellow letters on a red backdrop covering the stand. “One team, one fanbase, one city,” it declared.
And that team, those fans, that city, was Girona. Not Miami.
Three days after they had played Copa del Rey quarter-final first legs, three days before they play Copa del Rey quarter-final second legs, Girona were playing Barcelona in the league. This was that game: the one they had announced would be played in the USA, 7,586km away. But when the day arrived, Sunday 4.15pm local time, the thousands of fans making their way there headed along Avinguda Montilivi, not the Ronald Reagan Turnpike. This wasn’t the Hard Rock Stadium, this was home: the city that provides the setting for Game of Thrones rather than Miami Vice and the ground embedded into the rocks out beyond the medieval maze. Leo Messi had come to town, their town, where he was whistled but where he won.
And where Javier Tebas lost. The league’s president is $10,000 poorer today, or he would have been if he’d actually put his considerable money where his considerable mouth is. In an interview with CNN, Tebas had said: “I bet you $10,000 that Girona-Barcelona gets played in Miami.” Yet the day before the match, Barcelona manager Ernesto Valverde grinned: “It’s not in Miami? You don’t say …” Two days before that, Girona manager Eusebio Sacristan had admitted he was as “happy as could be” that they were not about to board a plane across the ocean. And when kick-off came, Spain’s catchiest club anthem boring its way into brains, it came in Catalonia.
There were three days to go before the season started when, without warning or consultation, the league announced a €200m, 15-year development deal with Relevent that would include them taking at least one game a season to the US, starting in Miami, and three weeks after that it was revealed that the game chosen would be Girona-Barcelona.
“If the NBA and the NFL do it, why wouldn’t we?” Tebas said, as if they were the same thing. He insisted it would be good for the league, helping its growth, pushing into a key market. There were no figures presented to demonstrate how much of an impact a single game (for now) would make but the rationale was logical and the urgency was understandable: within La Liga, they were well aware of the strength of the Premier League, fearing it could eclipse all else. There was a sense that something had to be done; they had to try, at least. Besides, they reasoned, taking games abroad some day is inevitable, so they should get there first before all those other leagues did it.
To start with the idea was welcomed; the doubts and debate came later. It was striking how quickly and easily it was accepted: there were few dissenting voices, no great outcry, no uprising, and in the press it was promoted, a project to get behind. Pretty much no one said much about the fans, but then pretty much no one ever does. Not much was said about the implications for the integrity of the competition either, until Julen Lopetegui raised it. The league said no clubs would be forced to go and plenty offered. Madrid refused. Barcelona and Girona agreed. For a club Girona’s size, a fee of around €3m matters. Jaume Roures, board member and head of Mediapro who own the TV rights to La Liga, declared it would “put Girona in the world”.
The date and time were announced four months in advance – which is three months and two weeks earlier than January’s other games were announced and even then, some got changed later – and the league offered very attractive compensation packages for fans. Up to 1,500 free flights and tickets for Miami – “we want the US fans to see their passion,” Tebas said – returning on the day; flight, ticket and two days’ hotel in Miami for €450; a 40% discount on their season ticket next year; or (up to 5,000) free tickets for Barcelona-Girona at the Camp Nou. Plans were made, including the suggestion the teams stand for the Spanish national anthem before the match.
But it was not so simple. Lopetegui expressed reservations, Madrid making powerful opposition, pulling some of the media with them. A handful of Barcelona players made their irritation public. The players’ union threatened to strike. And the Spanish football federation, who had taken the Super Cup to Tangiers, moved against the proposal. As it was up to the RFEF to authorise the game, as Fifa then backed them, that was basically that.
The battle, though, continued and was played out publicly. The contract with Relevent didn’t oblige the league to play games in the US; it only obliged them to do all they could to play games in the US, which might help explain why the fight went on and also why it was acted-out before an audience. There was a petition supposedly from American fans, explicitly presenting them as the true guardians of football, demanding “bring US the game”, and Tebas talked about going to court. But that petition is an empty black page now, and they never stood before a judge. They never went to the US either. Amidst the fighting, Barcelona backed out, appealing for “consensus”.
It had been quite an occasion, a match announced by Girona’s captain reading poetry. Montilivi had never been fuller. They belted out the anthem at the start and they chanted for Catalan independence on 17.14, flags unfurled, but mostly they roared their team on, hammering feet on scaffolding stands and shouting. Briefly, the place fell silent apart from one corner of culés and a small smattering of them around the ground when Nélson Semedo scored the first. But it wasn’t quiet for long. The rain came, hard, a heavy curtain of water, but they didn’t depart. A rainbow appeared, hope too. And they kept shouting. They shouted when Cristhian Stuani tumbled, Jordi Alba holding his shirt; when Marc-André ter Stegen saved from Stuani; and when Gerard Piqué cleared Pere Pons’s shot off the line. They shouted when Ter Stegen stopped Stuani again, twice. And when Sergio Busquets slid in to block Aleix García, they thought the goal was coming, but it didn’t.
They shouted when, with 40 minutes still to go, Bernardo was sent off for a second yellow as questionable as the first – “rigorous,” Stuani called it, “a foul and no more” – and they whistled Messi because he was the one who had demanded the card. They were still whistling him when he scored the second, superbly made by Luis Suárez and Alba. Lifting the ball gently over Bono, who later made three more impressive saves, Messi had ended it, as he tends to do. Barcelona had played Russian Roulette, El Mundo said, but they had survived, winning their eighth in a row to keep them five points ahead of Atlético and 10 over Madrid. Messi has scored in the last seven of them; he’s scored or assisted in the last 14 matches.
“Miami deserved to see Messi,” Marca wrote (why?), while Sport suggested it was a blessing the game hadn’t been played in the US as “this was not exactly the kind of spectacle that makes people football fans”. Well, that’s what Sport suggested on one page, anyway; on the next, they said: “Miami would have loved to see this.” Which they could on TV, but it was Montilivi that watched it, that lived it, and that would have loved to see a different ending. Montilivi that deserved it, too. “They play some of the best football in Spain,” Alba said, but Girona had been beaten again, extending their run to eight without a win. They were wondering how when they left the stadium and began the short walk home.
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