"The thorn that relegation left in my side can only be removed by promotion," Cristhian Stuani said, and so here he is again. There were other, far easier ways out -- maybe better ones, too -- but the Uruguay striker chose a different path: longer and harder even than he imagined, yet right somehow. Even when it all went wrong, even in those moments when he could have been forgiven for wondering what he had done. He had chosen to seek redemption over escape; denied him so far, it has led him back to a familiar place. Where it takes him next, Sunday will decide.
It was the summer of 2019 when Stuani said that. Girona Futbol Club's first and so far last experience in Primera had just come to a painful end. Defeated by Levante, they had been relegated on the penultimate day of their second-ever season in the top flight and there was no guarantee they would be back. Most expected their best players to take flight, too. It is the oldest story of all: the relegated side stripped, its best players salvaged and sent off to new clubs to balance the books. They weren't about to hang around in the second division. Stuani certainly wasn't.
No one would expect him to, nor dare to make such demands. The club's top scorer in the first season in LaLiga, on 21, Stuani was the top scorer in their second too, 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 definitely was him: offers came in, including one from Barcelona. It was just a case of 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.
Stuani was staying in Girona, in part because it was his place; doing so made it even more his place and him even more of a hero. From the ages of six to thirteen, he had played at Atenas, the baby football club in Tala, around 100 miles outside Montevideo. He had made his debut at Danubio, there was a loan at Bellavista and then he crossed the Atlantic to Reggina. He was only 20. He played for Albacete, scoring 22 times to bring them up from the second division. Levante followed, then Racing Santander, Espanyol and Middlesbrough.
He was already 31 when he arrived at Girona, a club and a city about which he didn't really know anything much and one to whom he owed nothing. Well, not yet. His best years were supposed to be behind him, and there were no ties that bound. Certainly no one anticipated him becoming the top scorer in their entire history, and quite probably their best player too, or a petition started to build a statue of him outside the stadium.
Yet Stuani described arriving in Girona as love at first sight, and it worked on the pitch too. He was better than anyone else, and that included himself. He was a revelation, breaking barriers no one expected. Those 21 and 19 goals had only ever been beaten by his year at Albacete in the second division: not always playing as a No.9, his previous seasons had brought four, seven, twelve, six, seven, nine and eight goals. If those numbers were reasons to want him to stay, though, they were also reasons to go.
There were other factors, though, something deeper if less tangible. They loved him and would like him more once he stayed. Girona is a beautiful place, coast and mountains close, the climate and cuisine perfect, and it had become home. Then there was loyalty, the club, a sense of belonging that he had not felt before. And, yes, the money was good, too -- although it could have been better elsewhere.
"I weighed it all up and took the decision to stay," Stuani said. "I had the chance to take other routes, and very good ones in sporting terms, but I chose to stay here. It's where I want to be. I backed the club and the club backed me: they were very good with me."
But still, Stuani couldn't play in the second division.
"When the relegation was confirmed, it hit Cristhian hard," sporting director Quique Carcel said. "I always knew he was happy in Girona and wanted to continue, but also that it was hard because he had many offers."
By the end of the window, though, it was a reality: a second-division side somehow holding on to a first-division star.
"I stayed to fight for a challenge that was not at all easy," Stuani said. "I hope we can come back up."
That was three years ago now. Win on Sunday against Tenerife in the second leg of the playoff final (3 p.m. ET, stream live on ESPN+) and they will at last come back up.
Sixth in the league, having defeated Eibar in the semifinal, Girona drew 0-0 with Tenerife in the first leg of the final, having had 70% of possession and 16 shots to 3. If they can make that count in the second leg, they will return to the first division, that relegation thorn finally removed from Stuani's side. They are on the verge now. Trouble is, that makes it sound a lot simpler than it is. That thorn is embedded deep, past experience painful.
Scorer of 29 regular-season league goals in his first second-division campaign, scorer of ten in his second despite injury repeatedly forcing him out, and scorer of 22 this season, Stuani has been the division's Pichichi (leading scorer) twice, trying to lead them back. He has been close: this is the third year in a row they have made the playoff final. Both times they played the second leg at home, everything seemingly falling into place perfectly, but still they haven't gone up. Last year, having won 2-1 away at Rayo Vallecano, they lost 2-0 at home having played almost the whole of the second half with 10 men. The year before, a Pere Milla goal in the 96th minute saw them lose out to Elche.
Now they're back, squeezing ahead of Real Oviedo and into sixth place on the head-to-head record, then defeating Eibar.
Poor Eibar: the Basque side, leading the way almost all 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 already-relegated Alcorcon. Then, having won 1-0 at Girona 1-0, another 91st-minute goal knocked them out in the semifinal. Stuani scored it, of course, still pursuing that promise. And so this became the third year in a row that Girona have reached the playoff final, every season since relegation. And so it became time to try again, another chance to break the spell.
It is bigger even than it looks, going back beyond these past three seasons and beyond Stuani, like some sort of club curse. Twice more 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 when no other team has lost more than one. It might have been even more cruel in 2015, even if that 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 place, forcing them into the playoff instead. There, they beat Zaragoza 3-0 in the semifinal first leg. Thinking it was done, resting players for the final, they lost the second leg 4-1 and went out.
In their past eight second-division seasons, Girona have finished: fourth, fifteenth, third, fourth, second, fifth, fifth and sixth, reaching six playoffs. Half of all the years in which the current playoff system has been in place, Girona have been there. (In two years they were a first-division team; in another, 2016-17, their only promotion season, they went up automatically in second place.) They have never gone up by way of the playoff.
In 2017, one of the few years when Girona weren't there, because they went up automatically, Sunday's opponents Tenerife were. Winners by a 1-0 scoreline in the first leg against Getafe, they lost the second 3-1. For the Canary Islanders, this appearance in the playoff -- based on a solid, deep-lying defence -- is more unexpected than Girona's. Their wait has been longer, too. This is only their second playoff since returning to the second division from the regionalised, semi-amateur, 83-team, four-division third tier. It's been 12 years since they were in the first division.
Tickets for this game sold out in 14 minutes, they said, and no wonder.
In the first leg of the final last week, Luis Miguel Ramis's team did a superb job of denying Girona anything. Now it's all down to a single night that they have both been waiting for. Two clubs chasing one place that is their everything.
"I don't know if this is going to be the good year or not," said Girona manager Michel, all too aware of the bad luck that seems to pursue them. Maybe, Girona hope, playing away and not at home will help. Maybe finishing sixth this time will too, the only position they hadn't finished in before. Maybe it's third time lucky. Or sixth, even. At this point, you'll hang onto anything. Maybe it's just time, that thorn finally drawn from their flesh. Or maybe it's simply right, justice at last.
In 2020, the season that Stuani stayed and promised to bring them straight back, he had scored twice against Almeria in the semifinal to take his total league goals to an astonishing 31 and his team to the final, at the gateway to Primera. There, against Elche, he was sent off. The card was harsh, he felt, and it hurt -- all that taken away from him.
"The hours pass and I still can't find any explanation," he said afterwards. "All I can do is get up again, like I have done my whole life. Football hit us hard but I'm sure it will pay us back one day."