In the summer of 2017, Girona fans were giddy about the thought of playing in La Liga for the first time in the club's 87-year history. They were not, however, enthused about Cristhian Stuani, the journeyman striker who had been signed to score the goals to keep them in the premier division. Stuani was on the cusp of turning 31 years old. He was coming off a season in the Premier League with Middlesbrough in which he scored just four times. They felt he was washed up.
"The sensations fans had about Stuani were not good," says Lluis Bosch, president of Penya Gironina, a Girona supporters club. "They weren't positive because his performances in two pre-season friendlies weren't good or what we were hoping for. We felt the best of his performances were already given when he was younger and that he would offer little or nothing to Girona."
It took less than half an hour of La Liga football for Stuani to defy expectations. Manager Diego Simeone's Atletico Madrid visited the picturesque Catalan city Girona on the opening weekend of fixtures. The region was still reeling from terrorist attacks a couple of days earlier. Sixteen died after a stabbing and van attacks on pedestrians in Barcelona and Cambrils. A minute's silence was observed before kick-off, and placards of support and solidarity were raised around the Montilivi stadium.
The match was end-to-end. Stuani was explosive. In the 22nd minute, he rose above two Atletico defenders to smash home the opening goal with his head. Three minutes later, he scored with another header. The stadium was on fire. Only some heroics from goalkeeper Jan Oblak kept Atletico in the match before they clawed their way back, finally drawing the game late in the second half 2-2.
"It was a surprise to us all—Stuani's performance in the first game of the league, to score two goals against Atletico Madrid," Bosch says. Stuani started as he meant to go on. He ended last season as La Liga's fifth-highest scorer, having netted 21 goals, a tally that played a crucial part in Girona's 10th-place finish.
Stuani has become a crowd favourite at Montilivi.
"Fans call him 'The Uruguayan,'" Bosch says. "They sing, 'Neither [Luis] Suarez, nor [Edison] Cavani, Cristhian Stuani!' to cheer him on during games. It's possible a penya [supporters club] will be called after him in his honour by the end of this season if he finishes top-scorer."
Remarkably, Stuani has been even better this season than last. He's outscoring his more illustrious Uruguayan compatriots, Suarez and Cavani, who have both scored nine goals in their respective league campaigns. As the Spanish league edges toward the winter break, Stuani is the league's top scorer with 11 goals—two more than Lionel Messi—despite having missed the first two games because of injury.
Notably, Stuani has a far better goals-per-minutes ratio than any of his rival strikers in La Liga.
For example, he has 85 minutes per goal compared to 397 minutes for Atletico forward and Ballon d'Or nominee Antoine Griezmann. Stuani scores the bulk of his goals in the box. He's an opportunist. He rattles home a significant number with his head and is ice-cool from the penalty spot, having never missed a penalty in La Liga. His most recent was last weekend during a 1-1 draw with Atletico.
Joan Golobart, who is a former player with Espanyol—a club that Stuani played with from 2012 until 2015—singles out Stuani's mental strength as his key attribute.
"He's a man who trusts a lot in his own possibilities," Golobart says. "He's able to spend large parts of a game isolated from his team, knowing that eventually he will have his own opportunity. He's smart. He has intuition—he makes good decisions. He's not a player who is good with the ball at his feet or one-on-one. He's not a player of high technical skill or a player who can surprise. He's player who is astute more than one who is agile.
"Above all, he's a player with a very strong mentality. He's one of those rare strikers like Diego Costa, who works tirelessly against the opposition's defence, although Stuani's manner is more discrete but almost more hurtful. He never gives up. He'll look for a goal in the first minute right up to the 95th minute. It's hard to play against players like this who never get scared. They also think about football as a contact sport. It's a way of life for them, their competitiveness.
"He's the typical forward that if he belongs to your team, you find he's great, but if he's on the other team, fans look to insult him. I like to have this kind of player in my team. A forward who is a fighter, strong and aggressive—guys who play at the limit of the rules and sometimes beyond them. It's part of knowing how to play football. When they're on the opposite team, you suffer them, and they make you angry."
Golobart makes the point that Stuani is the same player at Girona that he was during his days with Espanyol. He only managed to score 12 goals in his final La Liga season with the club (2014-15), but Stuani has grown into his role as Girona's franchise player. The greater responsibility—a mantle that has arrived to him in the autumn of his career—sits well with him.
"At Espanyol, I always had the feeling he was important, but he definitely could give more," Golobart says. "What's happened is that he feels more valued at Girona than he did at Espanyol. His Girona teammates look on him as being more important. He's their reference point. At Espanyol, he was an attacker on a team of 11 players. At Girona, he's the reference point for the team, for the club. He has responded wonderfully to this new role he's been given."
Stuani's career has been a series of ups and downs. He grew up in Tala, a small rural town in Uruguay, and is the son of middle-class parents. His father ran the family grocery business; his mother was a teacher. He joined one of Uruguay's premier division clubs, Danubio, as a 13-year-old, which involved making a 160-kilometer round trip for training and matches.
His big move to Europe's leagues came in 2008, when he joined Reggina as a 21-year-old, but he floundered. He only managed to register one goal in 18 appearances in Serie A for the club. He fared better when out on loan, scoring 22 goals during one spell in Spain's second division with Albacete—which is still a club-season record—but was sold to Espanyol in 2012.
A few years later, he moved to Middlesbrough in England, where he scored the goal that earned the side promotion to the Premier League in May 2016. The following season, he only scored four goals in the top flight before moving to Girona, where he has come into his kingdom. The late flowering of his career is a surprise to football observers back in Uruguay.
"Until his performances over the last two seasons with Girona, he was a player with a very low profile here in Uruguay," says Daniel Rosa, a sports editor with El Pais. "People didn't know much about him. But now every Uruguayan thinks that if Suarez or Cavani are missing, we have a guy at their level to replace them."
Three Uruguayan players have finished seasons as top scorers in La Liga. Jorge da Silva won the Pichichi for Valladolid in 1984, Diego Forlan was twice top scorer in the 2000s and Suarez won it in 2016.
It would be an incredible achievement if Stuani were to become the fourth Uruguayan footballer to win a Pichichi, especially with one of the smallest clubs in the league. But this La Liga season is so strange—at the moment, 76 points might be enough to win the title—so he might just be in with a chance.
"Stuani's explosion—his improved performances, his achievements—has arrived late in his career," Rosa says. "It's strange. After all these years, playing in Europe the world is finally getting to know him."
Follow Richard on Twitter: @Richard_Fitz