Guillem Balague is a Spanish football pundit and writer, who has become the recognisable face of La Liga reporting in the UK. Ranging from his work with a number of British papers to his regular appearances on numerous Sky Sports programmes (including Revista De La Liga and his recent Magic of Messi documentary) he is the ever present expert when it comes to the Spanish league. He has now written a biography on Pep Guardiola, Another Way of Winning, which explores one of Barcelona’s greatest ever managers, including his unprecedented haul of fourteen trophies during a remarkable four season tenure. I caught up with Guillem to discuss his new book, as well as his views on Messi, Mourinho and why football fans shouldn’t expect fireworks during the January transfer window.
What made you interested in writing a book on Pep Guardiola?
I wrote a book on Liverpool called ‘A Season on the Brink’ and Orion who were the publishers had been looking for an idea to work on again together. I suggested some but they weren’t sure and then they came up with this idea of the Pep Guardiola book. I said ‘Yes but only if I can talk to him’ but knowing that he wasn’t talking to anybody. So that was the first challenge. But once he allowed me to talk to him and he opened the doors to the changing rooms and sent an e-mail to Ferguson to talk to me then it was a project I obviously wanted to be involved in.
How long did the biography take you to put together?
Twenty years! You don’t get to talk to Pep Guardiola or any of the players when they are not talking to anybody unless you have twenty years of a professional life which is respected and within which they can trust you. So in terms of how you get there, you don’t get there without those twenty years. In terms of the book I started in January last year and started doing interviews until May or so. Then I started writing it for about two months. Once you’ve got all the conversations that have taken place, then it’s just a matter of putting it altogether in a kind of always thinking, in my case anyway, that it is a novel rather than just a biography, with a bit of tension and creating an interesting character, including his strengths and weaknesses, his ying and yang. I don’t know if that came out in the book but that was my intention anyway.
The book opens with a foreword from Sir Alex Ferguson, a manager who some believe to be a contender for greatest of all time. How did this conversation come about?
I obviously wanted to speak with Sir Alex considering he had been in two Champions League finals in Barcelona and I sent an e-mail to Manchester United, who originally never replied. When talking to Pep I said ‘I’d love to talk to Sir Alex’ and he didn’t say anything at the time. The next day I got a call from Ferguson’s secretary saying ‘Do you want to come to Manchester to talk to Sir Alex’ and I’m like ‘Yeah! What happened then?’ and it was because Pep had sent an e-mail saying to Ferguson to get in touch if he wanted to talk to me because he had been more than happy to do so. So I am eternally grateful to both for the opportunity. So I went to the meeting and I was delayed by 45 minutes! But he was in a very good mood. Apparantly everyone was late on that day, including his players because of a traffic problem. So we had a 45 minute talk where it was pretty clear the admiration that Sir Alex had towards Pep. I’ve had interviews before with Ferguson and to me they were some of the best times of my career. The guy makes you feel so comfortable and nonchalant and he’s such a good talker that it really was a privilege.
Would you rate Guardiola amongst the greatest managers in the world, or do you feel he still has more to prove with other clubs first?
I don’t know if there are any other managers in the world who have got 14 titles after 19 months in charge. None. None in the history of the world. Not even close to that. Yes it was with one club but there’s the fact that Ferguson has been at Man Utd for 26 years having won things with Aberdeen. But had he only done the 26 years with Man Utd would people say ‘Ah but could he do it with a different team?’. It also seems to be a different analysis when it’s a manager outside of the Premier League. In the EPL, if you do really, really well you are considered one of the best in the world, but people like Messi as a player, or Guardiola as a manager, have to test themselves in the Romanian League or something to prove that they are the best. Pep has changed football. I wouldn’t enter the equation for who is the best in the world because I’m not interested in that but he has definitely changed football, in the same way that managers like (Louis) van Gaal, (Johan) Cruyff, (Rinus) Michels changed football. It means that you are on the olympus of football no doubt about it.
Where does Guardiola go from here?
Well, he will go to a club who can win things straightaway. He would want a squad with quality players who can win things but also to play the way that he wants. A club if he can in the Premier League. A club where he feels the infrastructure is right not to just win one year but to keep winning. There are not many clubs like that and everybody knows which clubs it could be. Everybody wants to know the name of the club but I can guarantee he hasn’t got anything agreed with anybody. We’ll just have to wait.
Times seem very good at the Barcelona at the moment, with the team still unbeaten in the league and Messi making worldwide headlines again after breaking the goalscoring record last year. Would you agree with the suggestion that their success thus far with Vilanova is because he has inherited a fantastic squad and has been more of a caretaker to them?
I think the foundations were put there a long time ago but Guardiola took it to a whole new level. What Tito is doing is continuing that work. I think it was good that Guardiola left because they had got a little bit stuck. There was so much pressure on him and he had used as much of his own personal resources as he could. He was lacking energy and there were still some big decisions which needed to be taken. All in all it was best that they parted company and somebody else continued the job and Tito has done that. He has helped give Barcelona new levels but based on the foundations that Pep put into the team.
Barcelona have a number of one-club players within their team. Messi signing a lengthy new contract, and Xavi and Puyol recently signed deals to ensure they stay at the Nou Camp until the end of their careers. The possibility is that Barcelona may soon become a one-club team, with all players rising through La Masia and staying with the club throughout their career. Do you believe this is possible?
I don’t think that has ever been the target but you can appreciate when it happens and you have to celebrate it. It was a dream put forward by Van Gaal where he said he’d like to win the Champions League with an all La Masia team. But I don’t think that was ever a target. La Masia certainly adds DNA to the club and to the players which is important for many reasons. The style, the philosophy on the pitch but also because it continues a way of doing and behaving throughout the generations. But what players like Abidal, Keita or Alexis can add may not always be able to be found in La Masia. A brand of player like a tough centre back. Despite Puyol coming from La Masia, they are yet to find a homegrown replacement for him. It’s that mixture of what players from La Masia and outside of it can give you which has always been embraced so I don’t think that’s a target at all but it is definitely to be complimented.
A main talking point in La Liga at the moment comes from one of Barcelona’s rivals, Real Madrid, and the drama between Jose Mourinho and some of his players. Do you think Mourinho has effectively ended any chance of staying with the club for the future? Where do you see him going to?
I don’t think he wants to be manager for a long time anyway and its quite clear his management methods work and are effective but are rather out of date. He wants everybody at the club like the directors, the media, the players and staff to be on their toes constantly and under pressure. I think they’ve reached that point of no return where now it’s either change the squad or change the manager. They may stay together until the end of the season but after that it doesn’t make sense for the whole thing to continue. We’ll have to see where he goes. There’s going to be the inevitable domino effect at the end of the season so we’ll have to see. PSG is a possibility. Some people talk about Chelsea, or City or even Inter he might return to. It just depends on the results of each manager.
Who were some of your favourite players growing up?
Gabino, former Betis and Espanyol. He was a lovely lovely player. A dribbler who was magic. Magic. And who also played for my team of course (Espanyol). And Zidane and Messi would of course be the other ones.
You recently presented ‘The Magic of Messi’ on Sky Sports, a look at Messi’s remarkable career so far, including a look at his record-breaking 2012. Is Messi the best player in the world today? Is he greatest of all time?
He’s the best in the world and one thing that actually surprised us during that show was just how marvellous he actually is. I mean, we look at him every week and every week he seems to break a record and we have to highlight each one. But putting it altogether was like ‘Oh my god! Come on!’. The man is like a joke. Some things that players don’t do in their entire career he has managed to do in twelve months. It was great from that point of view. And is he the best ever? Every era brings up that discussion I suppose, but what’s quite clear is that it has never been harder to be a top player, because teams are more physical and there are more tactics. But he has shown that he can consistently beat everybody, except for on the international stage. Now I don’t think anyone in the world has done that recently but there is an argument to be made that Maradona is the greatest. I think Maradona was more of a complete player than Messi is. Maradona had a 50 meter accurate pass which I don’t think Messi has, but maybe that is because he doesn’t need to have it. Both are electric in their pace but Maradona added more to it. We’re getting there though with Messi. It’s still early days and we should wait until the end of his career to decide but if there was to be one it would be between those two.
And finally the January transfer window has opened up. Do you have any predictions for any big signings you can see happening this month?
There’s not much money available. Big clubs have decided it’s not time to make changes. There will be a lot of big no’s. Villa won’t go. Negredo won’t go. There will just be smaller transfers this month I think. Club’s in La Liga like Espanyol or Betis may sell if bids come in because they need the money, but nothing will be major.