Cristhian Stuani said it wasn’t him, an old school No 9 doing what no No 9 ever does, but no one cared, not even the referee. He could have the goal, he had earned it: a hundred times over, every minute of every day, the best days of their lives. All they wanted was the chance to share it with him, to hold him: their captain, their idol, the 37-year-old who had only been on the pitch 13 minutes, handed a rescue mission with his team on the verge of being beaten for only the second time in the most extraordinary season they had ever seen, and who had only gone and scored twice: first in the 82nd minute and now with just two minutes left to take them top. Them: Girona Futbol Club, leaders of La Liga, for goodness sake.
So there they were, everyone in Montilivi going mad, Stuani racing to the corner and everyone else running after him, including their manager, Michel, running down the wing again like it was 2012. What did it matter if the Uruguayan didn’t actually score the second? What did it matter if, far from claiming it the way he’s supposed to, greedily grabbing at everything he can get, he publicly insisted he hadn’t touched it, the ball instead accidentally put away by the other Cristhian, Valencia defender Mosquera? It was his goal really – he was the one in a familiar position, right there right when they needed him – and his goal officially too.
La Liga gave it to him, no dubious goals panel to snatch it away again. The referee, Javier Iglesias Villanueva, gave it to him too, his report, lodged with the federation, holy writ, infallible and unarguable, no appeals, no arguments: Cristhian Ricardo Stuani (81), Cristhian Ricardo Stuani (88). And, as for the fans, they would give him anything, just happy that he’s still here, happy that the man who deserves it more than anyone else gets to live this absurd, unexpected experience this with them. This was his 121st goal for Girona and even if it wasn’t, it’s still more than anyone else, ever. “Stuani,” says Michel, “is the most important player in the club’s history.”
Sometimes the cliches are true: when Stuani was little, growing up in the tiny town of Tala, population 5,000, he broke a window playing football at home. He was never the quickest and he wasn’t the most technically gifted either, but he understood. He read the game better than anyone, learned how to hide, slipping into those places where defenders couldn’t see him, taught himself to head and to finish; how to be a teammate too, never an effort spared or a word out of place.
When he arrived at recently promoted Girona, Stuani was already 31, had scored 7, 6 and 12 in his previous three years at Espanyol, and might not be around for much longer. He had won the league with Danubio in Uruguay, but he wasn’t about to do that again. In his first season at Reggina in Italy, he didn’t score; in his second he was relegated. The same would happen at Racing Santander. At Middlesbrough, he had gone up, scoring 11 times en route but then back down again. Then he scored Girona’s first ever goal in primera, and 20 more followed. So, though, did relegation, in his second season. It was the fourth time he fell.
Which is why they love him so. “Not Suárez, not Cavani, we’ve got Stuani,” the chant ran, while some fans have appealed for him to have a statue at Montilivi. Top scorer two years in a row, 40 league goals spread across two seasons, he had scored more than 40% of their goals and had either scored or assisted more than half of them. If anyone didn’t deserve to play in the second division again, it was him; if anyone didn’t have to, it was also him. Too good to go down, clubs came offering him the chance to avoid relegation. One was Barcelona, just 99km down the road.
But after a career looking, Stuani had found his place, a home in Girona and at Girona. Almost literally: he lives alongside the golf course where they train every day. There was a debt of gratitude, the determination to put it right, and on the last day of the window, he signed a new contract. It was a good one of course – Girona would later admit that they could not afford to keep paying it for more than one season in segunda, which is why he renegotiated it, spreading his salary over two extra years – but this was bigger. There was a promise to keep.
As it turned out, it took a little longer than anyone expected. That year, Stuani scored 29 times but still they didn’t come back up. Two more against Almeria in the semi-final of the playoffs took them to the final and him to 31, only to be sent off against Elche. “The hours pass and I still can’t find an explanation,” he said after. “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.” The following season, he scored 10, despite suffering injury; again, Girona lost in the playoff final, to Rayo. The year after that, he scored 22 in reaching another playoff final. Now at last, the day had arrived: Stuani scored, Girona were back, vow fulfilled.
Not that he was walking away, job done. He was 35, but not finished, not just kept around because they feel they owe him or because there is nowhere else to go. Not then, not even now. This summer the Saudi side Abha Club came with an offer that, in La Razon’s words, he “could not refuse” but he refused. Stuani, Michel says, leads the dressing room, which might sound like a platitude but it’s not. Nor is that the extent of his contribution. “What could be more lovely than retiring in the place where you have built your history and people have shown you so much affection?” he said.
Even now, he accounts for more than a third of all the goals Girona have ever scored in primera. Last season there were nine league goals and Saturday’s (one or) two were his (fourth or) fifth of the season in just 561 minutes. Only Artem Dovbyk has scored more; no one has a better ratio. Most importantly of all, they also completed a superb final half an hour, driven in particular by fellow sub Yan Couto, who provided both goals, and yet another comeback. Seventeen points Girona have won having been behind, irresistible when the momentum builds, the captain taking them back to the top, joint with Madrid and ahead of the Barcelona team he turned down to play in the second division.
Looking back on his career in an interview once, Stuani said: “I’ve never been lucky enough play for a team fighting to be champions.” That was in 2018. Now, five years, a fourth relegation and many, many goals later, some he got and one they gave him, it’s actually happening.
“This is a dream,” he said.
“It was fun,” João Félix said, when at last it was over and he had scored the goal that defeated his former team – which is also his current team. Clipping the ball beautifully over Jan Oblak, he then leapt on to the advertising board behind the goal and stood, arms wide in front of the fans. “I don’t know [what I was thinking]; I think it was relief after everything that was said about me, about me as a person, about my professionalism,” he said. All week it had been about him; all game it had been too, a little hint of how bad things had become in Madrid, and he had won. When he headed back towards the centre, there was the hint of a kiss blown at the Atlético supporters. “I’m happy for him,” Xavi said. “João Feliz,” one headline had it. João Happy, in other words.
He wasn’t the only one. This was huge for Barcelona, a glimpse perhaps of what could be and a second vital win in a row, after they had defeated Porto in midweek. Nor was it just about João Félix: Iñaki Peña made two superb saves, including one from a brilliant Memphis Depay free-kick which he pushed on to the bar and another in the very last minute from which Ángel Correa really should have grabbed a draw, as Atlético improved in the second half. Raphinha was at the heart of their good start. Pedri grew. And Frenkie de Jong was superb.
And yet, well, it was all about João, a point proven if maybe not the point: Diego Simeone and Antoine Griezmann had after all talked about consistency as the key, the coach insisting “anyone can have one good game”. This time, it was João who did, a feeling of vendetta about it all. He had also done a pretty good job of burning his bridges with the club that owns him – which is the way he wanted it, saying afterwards that “god willing” Barcelona, who can’t really afford to buy him, will make an “effort” to keep him.
“I don’t read or hear what people say,” he said afterwards, sounding a little bit like someone who had read and heard what people say, not least because it’s inevitable. “Every week they talk about me, good or bad. People that are not inside my life don’t know what really happened before, so sometimes it is unfair what they say – but it’s normal for a player to receive criticism that is not fair. We are here to play, to improve, and to [make it so] one day the haters become fans.”