Vox in the Box: Guillem Balagué

Guillem Balagué is a journalist for Sky Sports, among others, and recently won Football Book of the Year for his biography of Cristiano Ronaldo, which is being updated and released again in September. He is also the Director of Football at Biggleswade United after joining the club in 2014.

Guillem, how did you get started in journalism?
My first contact with journalism was when I was eight and a relative asked me ‘What do you want to do when you grow up?’, and I said ‘Journalist’. I don’t even know why I said that, I probably didn’t even know what it meant. Since then everybody said I was going to be a journalist, so I had to find out what it meant. Certainly I was interested in reading and I’ve always loved immersing myself in newspapers.

I didn’t become a sports journalist (to begin with), I became a journalist. I went to university and we don’t specialise the way you do in England. But accidents happen. I came to England in 1991 when I finished university to learn English, and I was writing about everything: Prince Charles and Lady Diana, Camilla, culture, politics. In 1996 I still hadn’t really made any steps in my professional career, but the Euros took place in England and I started writing for Don Balon, a football magazine which is now a website.

A year later I rang Sky to say I want to write about Spanish football because I’d been doing it for a year, and they said ‘Come over and we’ll show you the studios’, and they put me in front of the camera. I had no idea. They said, ‘The show starts in half an hour’, so I said ‘What do you mean?’ and they told me ‘You’re the guest this week’. I can’t remember the game, or what I said about it, but at half time they said they were going to start a highlights show and did I want to do it. I answered yes, and that’s where sports journalism started for me because being with Sky has allowed me hundreds of opportunities.

Do you prefer writing or broadcasting?
I prefer radio. I really enjoyed the three years we did with Football First In Europe with Adrian Durham, Gabriele Marcotti, Raphael Honigstein and all those guys. I love radio, talking to people. I’m comfortable with TV broadcasting – there’s a lot of work behind it but it’s exciting to feel the butterflies in my stomach before every show. And writing is something I’ve always done. I’m happy doing it and I’m lucky enough to be given the opportunity to write even more books. If I couldn’t write, I’d have no idea what I’d do in this life. No idea, because I don’t think I could do anything else that would make me that happy.

How has radio changed as a medium?
I think radio has become more extreme like society, probably as a consequence of social networks and thinking that people really are that extreme – or that’s what they want – so we feed them those opinions. Some shows are too short, I would like more depth like you can find in podcasts.

I’m now doing special shows for TalkSport. I said I didn’t want to get involved in something like Football First In Europe, but it would be wonderful to get an hour to just chat to somebody or a bunch of people and go deep on issues. They said ‘Okay, let’s do it’. The first one was with Mikel Arteta, Hector Bellerin and Gaizka Mendieta, talking about what it means to be an immigrant playing in England, and it came out well. It’s not only going to be about Spanish players, it could be about absolutely anything. I think we’ll do ten a season or something, and I’m loving being involved in radio again.

Is football covered very differently in England and Spain?
Yes it is. I’m not sure which one I prefer. In Spain all journalists think they know a lot about football, so they try to focus on the tactical side. There is also a tabloidy extreme opinions type of sports journalism lately – not so much in newspapers but on television – where you’re supposed to have your team’s shirt on and become a fan instead of a journalist. I don’t like that, but I do like the fact that people go in depth about why teams win or lose.

In England it’s about personalities and controversy and the angle has to be found. But at the same time you’ve got the Telegraph, you’ve got the Times, you’ve got the best football writing in the world, so there is space for everything. There is space for tabloid journalism but there is a huge space for sports writing of the highest calibre. In terms of books, you find the best writers in England. Journalism in terms of analysing the game, perhaps more in Spain.

Do you feel there’s too much controversy these days?
It felt like about five years ago somebody realised that referees hadn’t been analysed and it helped with that idea of controversy. And then it was like, ‘Alright, let’s all look at referee’s decisions’. It went from nothing to what we get now, which I think is perhaps excessive. It wouldn’t feel excessive if you had the same kind of coverage for analysing the game. If the Gary Nevilles and Jamie Carraghers of this world filled more inches and airwaves, and next to it there was also referee’s decisions being analysed. But I feel it’s too unbalanced.

You have a good relationship with Pep Guardiola – how’s he going to get on at Man City?
For me it’s the biggest challenge in his career, and it’s got nothing to do with ‘Oh my god it’s the Premier League’. It’s to do with what he’s been given. Before, obviously, he had a winning side at Bayern Munich, a losing side at Barcelona – before he joined they had won nothing in three years – but with good players. But at Manchester City, it was such a disappointment in the semi-finals of the Champions League. They didn’t have any soul, they didn’t have a plan. I couldn’t tell you how they were defending or how they were attacking. No player raised their level, it’s strange that the whole team were lacking motivation in the semi-final of the Champions League. So building on that and having a squad that competes for the title and so on is not going to be easy. He wants to do it his way, because he believes that’s the best way, because he’s got the way to win.

What do you think about some people claiming he failed at Bayern Munich?
Why is it that Pep Guardiola brings that kind of vitriol, and people try to link the word ‘failed’ with him? I’m not sure 100%, but I think (it’s because) he offers something new, and people are scared of new things. He also offers a depth in work and understanding of the game that is not usual. Most people say ‘Ah, football is simple, don’t over-complicate it’. Then when he loses a game it’s like ‘See, he’s failed’, but not just like he’s lost a game, he’s failed with his idea of football. So there’s a little bit of envy, a bit of misunderstanding.

His search for perfection, which is admirable and something to praise, it’s disliked by some people. The club don’t think he’s been a failure, he doesn’t think he’s been a failure. Failure is such a big word, if he’s failed for having got to three semi-finals of the Champions League then you have to say that 99.9% of coaches in the history of football have failed. Do you really want to put that next to the name of so many coaches? It’s fascinating to see the reaction, but I think it comes from all that.

How’s he going to get on with the press in England?
You’re going to find something that happened in Munich: he doesn’t open up. He won’t do off-the-records, he won’t talk to anybody on the phone, he won’t be friendly with anybody. The English media will accept that for a while. But because he’s not going to build bridges with the media, he never wins. He’s aware of that. He doesn’t want to build those bridges because his job is on the training ground. He will be in the press conference for as long as he’s needed to talk about football. The problem is that not many people want to talk about football in press conferences.

I’m not sure that’s going to go well, but I would say to fans, especially those of Manchester City, that if you can listen to him. See what he does and try to understand what he does. And try to find people who will explain, via the media, what he does. Because if people only want to provoke him, you’re going to end up missing out on what it is to be one of the biggest brains in football.

Away from La Liga and the Premier League, you’re involved with Biggleswade United. So football is your work and your hobby?
It is football and it isn’t. It’s obviously about winning the weekend game and trying to get new players, with the academy and all that. But it’s also about people and having an idea of how to develop players, how to create a community, how to deal with problems, how to fix things, how to help people when they’re down. And that’s obviously the attraction.

I’ve always had a dream of helping run a football club and I was given that opportunity at Biggleswade United. It’s my biggest passion at the moment – and keep an eye on us next season as I think we will compete. Obviously we can have a lot of ideas, but without financial backing we won’t go anywhere. You can go out all day and ask for backing, but what we needed was someone who believed in us and thought like us, and Nordeus (the club’s new sponsor), through Top Eleven, are exactly that. Top Eleven is a game about getting a team from grassroots up to the Premier League. It’s in the second year and they help us with the first team and the academy. It’s absolutely essential and I’m very grateful to them.

Will you get Pep down to give a team talk?
Funnily enough I have a picture of him with our shirt and every time I talk to him there’s always a mention. But the main thing I’ve learned from him, and I can guarantee it’s true, is that he said he learned more in the Segunda Division with Barcelona B than anywhere else, because every changing room is the same. You have the star, you have the one who’s jealous, you have the one who is a leader, the one who is the quiet one. Every changing room is the same, and at Biggleswade it’s like any other changing room. So you have to treat players with respect, coaches with respect. You can demand certain things but you have to respect them. There are lessons (from Pep) that can be applied.

Photo credit: Emma Clayden

Vox in the Box: Guillem Balagué
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