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Culture: Guillem goes from Biggleswade to Barcelona. . .

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Guillem Balague
Guillem Balague

For more than 20 years Guillem Balagué has been the face of Spanish football on Sky Sports. He is now the presenter of the highlight show Revista de La Liga, as well as the UK correspondent for AS, the Madrid-based Spanish sports newspaper. His work appears regularly on Yahoo.com, the biggest news website in the world, and has a blog on Skysports.com. He has his own radio/podcast show on Talksport, ‘Inside Football’ where he has interviewed Juan Mata, Gary Neville, Xabi Alonso, Gareth Southgate and was given exclusive access to Eddie Howe’s coaching methods.

In the popular Spanish football show he has broken some of the biggest news of recent years: the arrival of David Beckham to Real Madrid and their signing of Cristiano Ronaldo from Manchester United, the departure of Fernando Torres from Liverpool to Chelsea, the departure of Cesc Fábregas from Arsenal to Barcelona, the move of Coutinho to Barcelona, and many more.

The list of people interviewed by Guillem reads like a who’s who of footbal; they include José Mourinho, Cristiano Ronaldo, Messi, Pep Guardiola, Alex Ferguson, Carles Puyol, Héctor Bellerín, Mikel Arteta, Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard, Rafa Benítez, Samuel Etoo, David Beckham, Raul, Xavi, Iniesta, plus a host of other influential figures in the game.

He has published six best-selling books, his biography of Ronaldo won the Best Football Book of the year award in 2016 and was voted Influencer of the year 2016. Following on the back of his latest book Brave New World’and prior to a short tour that will include a trip to Sudbury’s Quay Theatre, Guillem took some time off to talk to Culture about his love of all things football. . .and especially Biggleswade United.

What brings you to Sudbury and why Sudbury?

Actually the Brave New World tour is not as comprehensive as the ones following the release of the Pep Guardiola, Leo Messi and Ronaldo biographies were and we have deliberately looked at smaller, more intimate venues this time. I love theatre and I adore places like The Quay Theatre. I came to Sudbury a while back shortly after I was appointed director of football at Biggleswade United because we wanted to pick their brains about 3G football pitches and was enormously impressed by both the town and also the excellent set-up in place at AFC Sudbury. The theatre as well as the football club and all the many sports clubs make it a very logical choice as a venue. I think you are very lucky to have these facilities in your town and think you should treasure them. I am really looking forward to it very much.

What brought you to England?

I qualified in journalism at Barcelona University and met a friend from Liverpool who was in Spain on an Erasmus Scholarship. He invited me to Liverpool and I took him up on his offer in 1991. With my limited English I lived hand-to-mouth working in pubs, delivering bread at four in the morning and occasionally trying to sell articles to Spain, invariably about Princess Diana and Prince Charles. In 1996, before the Euros, I met a former fellow student who was now in charge of the football magazine Don Balon, who told me they didn’t have anyone covering the English football scene and would I do it? A year later I rang Sky and told them I would like to write about their involvement with the Spanish game as they had been covering it for a season. That was 1997. I remember having to borrow a jacket from a friend because I didn’t actually own one. Unfortunately, he weighed about 20 stone so it didn’t really look the best. They asked me to come in to show me around and when I got there they placed me in front of the camera – ‘Right’, the producer said, ‘we go in 30 minutes and you’re the guest for our programme on La Liga’. The rest, as they say, is history. And since then I have been commuting between Spain and England, lucky enough to enjoy two of the best countries in the world.

You are now a journalist, author, broadcaster, and pundit. Which one do you enjoy doing the most?

They all have their good points but ultimately what I like to call myself is a communicator, a teller of stories, be it verbal on television or radio, or written via newspapers or books. They all have their merit. It’s really about getting the message across, about communicating. I love meeting with people of all sorts, both famous and not so famous, very often they are one and the same. I love the in-depth documentaries I have been able to do on Talksport featuring people like Gary Neville and Eddie Howe. Actually, aside from my professional life, which I will be the first to admit makes me one of the luckiest men in the world, what gives me most pleasure, what I really have a passion for – and a lot of people don’t believe me when I say this, but it’s true – is being director of football at Biggleswade United FC.

What do you say to all those people that say footballers are just a bunch of overpaid, spoilt brats?

The players that earn the really big money is only ever a small percentage of those that play the game. Most players do earn a very good living, but why shouldn’t they when there is so much money swilling around in football these days. I don’t think anyone realises just how hard it is to get to the top of your profession in football and some of the sacrifices that players have had to make to get there. And the pressure doesn’t stop when they get there with everyone – and I include people like myself here – wanting a piece of them. The pressure on them is enormous and they are just taking a slice of what is a very rich cake. The notion that footballers just play for the money and not for the game is something I will never agree with, although it is the barometer by which footballers can gauge the level at which they are perceived by their paymasters. We also forget that there are many people who play football who earn very little and give up their time to play the game simply because they love it. And by the way, I never hear anyone complaining about things like the $900,000 an episode paid to The Big Bang Theory star Jim Parsons or the $15-20 million per film paid to actors like Jennifer Lawrence, Dwayne Johnson and Roberty Downey Jr. I think football, and particularly footballers, get an unfair press

What question are you asked most?

More often than not I am asked how I got into television and whether or not I can get them in as well (laughs). These days I am almost always asked what on earth prompted you to get so involved with Biggleswade United. Inevitably, in a direct football context, the one I am always asked is who is the better player. . .Messi or Ronaldo?

OK then. So who IS the better player?

Let me answer your question with a question. Do you love good food and wine, by which I mean the very best of food prepared by the top chefs? You do? Lobster thermidor or chateaubriand? A 2004 Dom Perignon or Reserva Rioja? I love them all – better. Same with Messi and Ronaldo. If I’m pushed I would say that Ronaldo is the greatest goalscorer we have ever seen, while Messi is simply the greatest all-round player ever to have played the game. Either way, we are spoilt by having been able to enjoy both of them simultaneously.

What advice would you give someone wanting to do your job as a sports journalist and presenter?

Become an all-round journalist first. I never met an editor that wasn’t prepared to let his reporters work at weekends, so there will always be opportunities to cover sport. Build contacts, work hard. Realise that sometimes if you want to go forward you have to take a step sideways first. Never forget that you are always less important that whoever or whatever you are writing about and that you are merely a conduit to the information, a teller of the tales. Be straight, be honest, be fair and be brave and if you are all of these things, the proper people you deal with on a regular basis, although not necessarily always agreeing with you, will at least know that what you have said or written has been created with the best possible motives and without malice.

Who is your favourite football team? Who do you support?

These days my real passion is for a team that begins with B and that is not Barcelona as many regularly accuse me of, but rather Biggleswade United. Did I mention that I was director of football there? I adore everything about non-league football and Biggleswade United. Recently I missed the first leg of the Copa del Rey match between Espanyol and Barcelona because I was involved with some Biggleswade United business. That’ll give you some clue as to where I am at the moment with my football supporting priorities. The players, the fans, the clubhouse, the characters and the buzz that only something like a winning football team can create in the community, I find addictive. I know the first time Sudbury, then Sudbury Town, got into the FA Vase final they took 14,000 fans to Wembley. I can’t even imagine or articulate how proud I would be if we could aspire to something similar at Biggleswade. I do however also support Barcelona-based side Espanyol, who I have loved from the moment I started to watch football. It is also where I first met the subject of my latest book, Mauricio Pochettino, when he joined the club in the 1990s and later became close friends with him when he returned to manage the club in 2004. Not surprisingly, my English club is Liverpool because that was my first port of call in the UK, although I have, not surprisingly, developed a very soft spot for Pochettino’s wonderfully entertaining Spurs side.

Who is going to win the World Cup and could it possibly be England? Can Spain win it again?

I don’t know whether England can win it or not. I was recording a feature with Gareth Southgate this week for Talksport and I firmly believe that this time at least they are going about it a bit more cleverly. Expectations are lower than usual and being deliberately played down. Gareth keeps saying he wants the country to be proud of the team playing the typical English way – whatever that might mean. I think he will be the first manager of what will be a transition period for English football which is certainly changing so others reap the benefits later. He certainly has it in his remit to leave a great legacy with the use of great young players and playing the game in a particular style, but I am not sure he will have enough this time around to ensure victory. And yes, Spain can most certainly win it, which of course is a long way from saying they actually will but I see no reason why they shouldn’t at least make the semi-finals.

Is money eventually going to kill football? Is the difference between the top and bottom clubs growing too big?

Actually, what very often kills football is not money but rather the lack of it. While it is easy to disagree with the way it is distributed, it is money that helps football to survive. Unfortunately, what happens on occasions and needs to be addressed is the disregard shown towards the fans by both clubs and governing organisations alike in this money driven business. Some clubs seem to see the fans as an inconvenient nuisance they have to deal with, merely as the creators of the atmosphere during games. In fact, what they should be seen as is an essential part of their development and their future. I’m fairly convinced that in terms of the amount of money in football, we haven’t yet reached a peak. If the likes of Netflix, Amazon, Facebook suddenly decide this is where they want to be aiming, then it will be interesting to see how the current big players like Sky and BT deal with it.

How much is football just a reflection of life?

Football has always been a mirror of society and not just, nor even principally, at its highest level. It the smaller clubs like AFC Sudbury and Biggleswade United which are a great place to learn life skills, respect for authority, your colleagues and your profession and that is why things like the club academies are so vital, and not merely in a sporting context.

Of all the football people you have met in your life which ones have impressed you the most?

There are so many. Another one of the questions I am frequently asked is ‘Is David Beckham as nice a bloke as he seems’ and the truth is that actually he very much is. Sometimes you don’t always see the real person; Jose Mourinho is two different people, the public one and the private one, while someone like Xabi Alonso you can sit down with and talk about anything and everything, and not just about football, for hours on end. Ronaldo is an enormously impressive towering figure with an innate confidence, while someone like Messi is naturally reserved but has made enormous strides because he has had to learn that it isn’t just about what you do on the pitch but all that follows it once the final whistle has been blown. I have many friends in football, but I guess if I had to pick a couple it would be Pako Ayestaran the former assistant manager at Liverpool and also Paco Herrera, who also worked as an assistant to Rafa Benitez at Liverpool. Obviously, I am also very close to Rafa not least because my first book was on Liverpool’s historic Champions League triumph in Istanbul against AC Milan, and Gaizka Mendieta has always been a true and loyal friend and work colleague.

You do for your job what most people do for fun? What do you do for fun?

I think I said earlier that I believed I was one of the luckiest men I know. Football takes up just about all of my time and to be paid, and paid well, for doing what I love more that anything else means I am truly blessed. That is work, but actually what it really is for me is fun. I love music and if I get the opportunity to see a concert I will always go for it. And on the rare occasions when I have a day free, I have been know to binge watch films, taking in three movies in a row at my local multiscreen. Watching TV series is another way to switch off my brain. Sometimes I manage to write a song or two.

What has been the most memorable thing you have ever experienced in football?

In a footballing sense, watching Spain win the World Cup in Johannesburg in 2010 was something I will never forget. At that one – almost slow motion – moment when Iniesta scored the winning goal there was no impartiality in view as the entire Spanish press contingent all suddenly stopped being hard-nosed sports reporters and broke into wild celebrations. After years of being branded serial under-achievers we followed up our European Champions win by becoming Champions of the world. That day, we all cried tears of joy. That evening you won’t be surprised to hear that. . .how do you put it?. . . drink was taken. I have also had the pleasure of watching Espanyol win two Spanish Cups and the night in Istanbul is also something that I will never forget. And I still get enormous joy watching my beloved Biggleswade United secure three league points or a vital cup win.

Guillem Balagué will be at the Quay Theatre, Sudbury on Thursday, February 15