Guillem Balague is a central feature of Sky Sports’ reporting and analysis in their coverage of Spanish football, regularly appearing as an expert during live matches and their weekly round-up programme Revista La Liga. He is also the UK correspondent for the Spanish sports newspaper AS and El Larguero, Spain’s most popular sports radio show with over 1.5 million listeners.
He also writes for the Bleacher Report and Champions magazine. He wrote a best-selling account of Liverpool’s 2004-05 Champions League winning year, A Season on the Brink and the biography of Pep Guardiola: Another Way of Winning.
Guillem has recently finished a book on the Barcelona and Argentina player Lionel Messi, entitled ‘Messi’.
Freelance journalist LAYTH YOUSIF interviewed Guillem exclusively for The Football Pink Issue 3 available here.
LY – To paraphrase Mrs Merton what attracted you to write a book about four times Ballon d’Or winner Lionel Messi?
GB – The publisher asked me what I’d like to do next. I wanted to go to a beach, relax, watch football and see my friends, but they asked me about doing another book. It had to be Messi. There is so much history and moments that he has created. There had been false statements about him that had been repeated and so I just started to scratch the surface to get to the bottom of it.
LY – You detail in heart-breaking style how difficult it was for the Messi family in that first year in Barcelona – do you think it was the making of him with hindsight – and do you think his father has completely forgiven the club for not delivering on their promises sooner?
GB – Everything that happens to everyone in life forms them for better or worse and as they say, whatever doesn’t destroy you makes you stronger. I don’t think it’s a case of forgiving the club but you’d have to ask the Messi family that. What I do know, and have openly said, is that the relationship enjoyed by the Messi’s with the old regime of Laporta was much stronger than the one they have today.
LY – Your chapter on how Messi became an all-time great should be required reading in understanding his success. You also mention the instructive story of a Jorge Troiteiro versus Andres Iniesta as youngsters –briefly can you sum up what requirements apart from talent you need to make it at the very top level? And why do you think Messi and Iniesta had ‘it’ and Troitero didn’t – surely it’s more than just ‘hard work, humility and persistence’?
GB – As you say, I devoted an entire chapter to this, so trying to answer this in a few words is absolutely impossible. But at its simplest level it’s about the three legs of a table, consisting of natural talent, an obsessive desire to be the best, and luck. Take anyone of those three away, and the table falls over. The support, attitude and behaviour of your close family and friends also has a major influence and perhaps Troitero did not always receive the best advice from those closest to him.
LY – It was a nice symmetry in a young Messi watching Maradona play for Newells Old Boys at the end of his playing career – we know what Maradona thinks of Messi but was does Messi think of Maradona – both as a player and a person?
GB – Maradona, predominantly because of his World Cup exploits is a footballing icon, if not exactly a role model, to the whole of Argentina. Remember though that Messi wasn’t even born when Maradona was winning the World Cup and from a personal aspect, the two players couldn’t be more different. Messi’s real idol when he was growing up was in fact Pablo Aimar.
LY – Who do you think is the better player, Maradona or Messi?
GB – I have said for a long time now that, for me, Messi is the greatest player ever to lace on a pair of boots, with or without a World Cup winners medal.
LY – Do you think Brazil 2014 will be his ‘Mexico 86’ moment?
GB – Who knows? One thing’s for sure, the 2014 World Cup has been on his radar for a long time now. Remember that before Brazil was picked as a venue there was a chance that Argentina would get the tournament. A lot depends on luck, injuries, how his team plays on the day and if they get the rub of the green. If you were to ask, can 2014 be his Mexico 86, then absolutely it can. But then it can also be Neymar’s, Ronaldo’s, Suarez’s or someone we haven’t even thought of at the moment. One thing is clear –since he was 16 he has thought of this World Cup as the one he would reach at the peak of his powers, as a 26 years old.
LY – Does a player need to win a World Cup to prove he’s on a par with Maradona and Pele?
GB – For everybody to think that he is the best, yes, but not for him to actually be the best. I understand the relevance of the World Cup and so does he and his family. He would win some personal battles if he helped Argentina to win the World Cup. That is the sort of pressure we are all putting him under – ‘Sorry Leo, unless you win the World Cup you are not the best.’ It isn’t helping because it has forced him to go through recuperation far too quickly because there is pressure put into his head.
LY – What do you think Messi’s legacy will be?
GB – He is the best ever. It’s got to do with the titles and his appearances in the finals – he is always there when it really matters. Mainly, though, it has got to be his consistency. A lot of players have one good year and then six bad months, but he has been at the same level and at the top for so long.”
LY – In your excellent book on Pep Guardiola he comes across as a very principled man, a very deep thinker and someone who has a lot of sensitivity – for people and his surroundings – but having also read Ibrahimovic’s book why do you think he was so scathing of Pep Guardiola as a man and a manager?
GB – When Ibrahimovic was asked for trials with Arsenal once, his reply was “I don’t do auditions.” Remember, Zlatan came to Barcelona as part of the deal that saw Samuel Eto’o go to Inter as the makeweight in the deal. He though he was going to be the focus of Guardiola’s new plans. Unfortunately for him Guardiola saw that the future revolved around the little Argentinian and if you look at the results and statistics it’s impossible to argue with his reasoning. Pep certainly is principled, sensitive and a deep thinker, but he is also fundamentally a footballing man that knows what’s required, and frankly Ibrahimovic did not fit into his plans and I don’t think Zlatan could take that on board.
LY – Mourinho said after the 1-2 defeat at Stamford Bridge in 2006 ‘Messi was theatrical. Catalonia is a place of culture and they [the Catalan media] know what theatre is’. What do you think of the Catalan media compared to the English media?
GB – Well it’s a bit rich when someone like Mourinho accuses someone like Messi of being ‘theatrical’. The truth is when Mourinho goes on a rant like that it is because he wants to deflect from the reality of the situation, in this case the fact that Asier del Horno, having previously committed a dreadful foul on Messi in midfield, then tried to cut him in virtually in half with a tackle by the corner flag. The Catalan, or for that matter the Madrid media is no different to the English media in that they will always be attracted to where the best copy is and Mourinho will always be happy to feed the resulting frenzy. The Catalan, Madrid and Manchester, London media will always be more biased towards their teams because they are their bread and butter although it must be said that playing somewhere like Barcelona when you’re a superstar can, I Imagine, sometimes make you feels like you’re living in a goldfish bowl.
LY – What do you think of Jose Mourinho? As a manager and as a person?
GB – Well his record speaks for itself. There’s no doubt that he’s a winner. You don’t win two Champions League and a treble in Italy without knowing something about the game. Would he be a lesser manager if he didn’t employ mind games on and off the pitch? I think he would have less fun for sure. Everything he does is to win, but I agree with Xavi that his main aim is not necessarily to change the course of history in the game.
GB – I really don’t know exactly what was said, although I do know that Sir Alex, despite the opinion of many, is at heart a gentleman who loves and appreciates great football, and would have been graceful in defeat. There is also obviously a language barrier here, because Leo speaks not a word of English and Sir Alex isn’t known for his Spanish so I would imagine he just said ‘well done’ and that would have been it.
LY – I am still struggling to understand the meaning of the Argentinian word enganche which Messi has been described as. Is it a deep lying midfield creator/playmaker behind the frontmen in the mould of say Matthias Sindelar in Hugo Meisl’s Austrian Wunderteam, a Nandor Hidegkuti in 1953/54 (even if you could argue the real playmaker in that Hungarian team was the inside left Puskas) or even Riquleme when he was at Villarreal? If so is Messi actually a true enganche as he scores far too many goals to be a bona fide playmaker? Is he more of a mediapunta – or ‘in the hole’ player?
GB – Anyone can score a goal from the goalkeeper to the number 11. Being an ‘enganche’ doesn’t mean you can only create and can’t score. Messi’s role as an enganche (literally, ‘hook’) is as the main focus of play, if you like the fulcrum from where everything radiates. But in terms of definition, for what it’s worth, an enganche is more of an offensive midfielder that appears in forward positions often, and a mediapunta more of a striker or second forward.
LY – I like the literary devices you use in the Messi book especially in the chapter ‘Waiting for Leo’. For me it evokes elements of Dylan Thomas, or even the magical realism of the great Columbian novelist Gabriel García Márquez – was this a conscious decision – and what did actually influence you to write in such an original way for a football book?
GB – Crikey, that’s very kind of you but I don’t think I aspire quite to the levels of those two, although I was definitely trying to write a different kind of book to a straight forward “and then this happened” type of story. I was as fascinated by the people’s perception of Leo almost as much as Leo himself and the technique comes as a result of trying to find the person behind the footballer. And the wish to let everybody have their say about Leo. Messi has always said if you want to find out who I am, you will know better from the people who know me. That’s what I did, and on many occasions Leo was on everyone’s mind, the subject of everyones conversations, but he just wasn’t there and here there is also obviously a nod to Samuel Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot’ in the title.
LY – I read that you worked in a bar in Liverpool for a while – how did you end up in Merseyside?
GB – The reason was because there was a student in Liverpool, Alistair Jackson, who went for the Erasmus (study aboard programme) and he was looking for a place to stay in Barcelona. He came over, and he was a typical scouser! He thought he was just a student and would go out late – my mom kicked him out basically, after a little bit! But we kept in touch and he said if you’re coming to England stay over with me if you want. So I said OK, I’m thinking of coming over for three months when I finish university. I did that. I stayed in his house for a year and a half. That was it, I came to learn English. He and his dad picked me up from the airport. I had done a year and a half English in Spain and couldn’t understand a word that was being said, it was so depressing! But I got into it very quickly, school in the mornings and then I’d spend about 5 or 6 hours in the pub everyday and that’s where you learn about life and English. And I earnt some money working in pubs.
Messi by Guillem Balague is available now.
Layth Yousif is a freelance journalist. His work has appeared in When Saturday Comes, World Soccer, Four-Four-Two, The Gooner, The London Evening Standard, The Sunday People, In Bed With Maradona, and The Inside Left amongst others.
Follow him on twitter @laythy29
Follow Guillem on Twitter @GuillemBalague