Bad news from Spain: Samu Saiz has been swapping spit again. Last time this happened it was terrible: in the midst of celebrating Newport’s FA Cup winner over Leeds, one of the Welsh shoved little Samu over (everyone always forgets that part). Little Samu got up and spat at him. He got a red card and a six game ban, and six weeks later his manager Thomas Christiansen got sacked, because all his players started getting sent off and losing to Newport turned out not to be the season’s low point after all.
But, good news from Spain! This time everything was fine because Samu was kissing a referee.
To explain: back in January, I wrote this bit about Saiz’s quest for promotion to La Liga. This ambition pre-dates his move to Leeds, which came the summer after a Huesca side he effectively ran sputtered in the Segunda play-off semi-finals and lost to Getafe. After Leeds, Saiz did get a taste of Spain’s top flight on loan at that same Getafe, helping them qualify for the Europa League, but his permanent transfer in the summer was to Girona, who had been relegated from La Liga the same season. The story since then has been about Cristhian Stuani, the once Middlesbrough striker from Uruguay, who had been expected to leave after top scoring twice for Girona in the top flight, but stayed to try getting them back up again. And again. And again. The first time ended in the play-offs, but Stuani got a harsh red card and Girona lost to Elche. The second time ended in the play-offs, but Stuani was injured and Girona lost to Rayo Vallecano. The third time? This season it looked like even the play-offs might not happen, despite Stuani sticking in another 22 goals, until Girona snuck in on the last day thanks to their head to head record against Real Oviedo.
Losing the semi-final first leg 1-0 to ten-man Eibar wasn’t exactly a promising start, but a 91st minute Stuani goal to win the second leg 2-0 got them to a two-leg final against Tenerife; a goalless home first leg took them to the Canary Islands for a one-game shoot out. Saiz started on the bench, but was subbed on early when Ivan Martin was injured. When he was subbed off again, with six minutes left, it was with a big grin and much waving to the away fans partying in the far corner: Girona were 3-1 up and heading for La Liga.
Saiz helped set up the goal that, after Tenerife had equalised Stuani’s penalty, put Girona 2-1 ahead and back in charge; scampering unmistakably through the middle, he sent the ball wide to Álex Baena, whose cross was deflected into his own net by Jose Leon. And he wasn’t involved at all in the third goal that made things sure, a free-kick volleyed in by Arnau Martínez, but that didn’t stop him celebrating: whipping his shirt off, he stood wide-legged in front of the fans pumping his arms, and this is when the ref-snogging happened. That exuberance earned him a yellow card and Samu, too happy to care, put his arm around the ref and leaned in to smooch him on the shoulder. How nice!
Si un vídeo tuviese que describir a Samu Saiz sería este. Se quita la camiseta para celebrar el gol, se abraza con el árbitro, éxtasis y se cachondea del calvo de Mollejo. Está fatal. Me encanta pic.twitter.com/5Aoei0CA8o
— Maxismo (@F1_MV1) June 20, 2022
Also nice: at full-time, as the Girona players and staff ran around going crazy, Saiz pulled a Roadrunner style handbrake turn and stopped to lift up Tenerife’s 38-year-old nine-season veteran goalscorer, Carlos Ruiz, who had plunged to his knees in tears. Then television viewers were treated to the best reconciliation of the season when Samu gatecrashed his coach Michel’s on-pitch interview.
Back in April, they were not friends. For the first time in his career, coach Michel made a first half substitution, taking Saiz off in the 36th minute of a home game against Malaga. Samu threw his shirt at the bench, Yeboah style, pointing up to Michel in the stands and yelling, “Clown, you’re a clown!” Michel didn’t back down after the game. “I understand he was upset,” he said, “But I was also upset with his minutes on the field.”
— Fútbol en Movistar Plus+ (@MovistarFutbol) June 19, 2022
All is forgiven in promotion. “Look at the clown!” said Michel, as Saiz came on camera for a hug. “We fight, and love each other,” Michel said. Saiz had come to say nice things. “No one believed in us,” he said, “only the coach, from day one, told us that we could get the promotion, that we were going to achieve it. The coach has never stopped believing and as soon as we arrived he told us that we were going to make history.” Awwwwww.
1,400 miles away there was dancing on the streets of Girona, the Catalan city sixty miles north of Barcelona. Not just for Saiz and Stuani but for a unique double: on the same night, the city’s basketball team won promotion to the Endesa League, ‘the first time a city achieved two consecutive promotions to the highest categories of football and basketball’ in the history of Spanish sport. The two teams have a joint open-top bus tour planned for Monday evening, and where the itinerary says ‘The party will end around midnight at Montilivi Stadium’, looking at how happy Samu Saiz is with life right now I think we can assume it means ‘start’. ⬢