Everton’s Goodison Park hosted an “Evening of Spanish Football” last week that saw three iconic figures in the Spanish game share their opinions with an audience of hundreds.
On stage, Sky Sports’ Spanish soccer expert Guillem Balague, Real Madrid legend Fernando Hierro and editor of Spanish newspaper AS, Alfredo Relaño, offered typically insightful and highly intriguing opinions on a host of matters.
They then opened up the floor to audience members who asked questions on the La Liga title race, Barcelona’s transfer ban, Spain’s World Cup triumph, Fernando Torres, Gerard Deulofeu and even Sam Allardyce!
Guillem started the evening discussing Lionel Messi, a player who he has recently written a fine book on.
He spoke to the audience of how a 12-year-old Messi made a huge decision to leave behind friends and family in Argentina to make it at Barcelona. Then, how his unyielding confidence in his own ability saw him stick it out, despite the majority of his immediate family returning to Argentina after just one year in Catalonia.
In Guillem’s book, he discusses the rise of Messi through the Barcelona academy, his encounters with players like Ronaldinho and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and the peculiar relationship he shares with former boss Pep Guardiola; the two have not spoken since Pep left La Blaugrana according to Guillem.
Hierro, the captain of the legendary Galacticos side shared his insight into his time as a player at both Real Madrid and Bolton, plus the role he has had off the pitch in Spain’s recent renaissance.
Relaño —a man Guillem claimed is his journalistic hero—spoke of the curious relationship between the Spanish media and the “big two” sides. He also delved into the notion that Real Madrid and Barcelona receive preferential treatment from officials, as well as the perceived view that Los Blancos are the “government’s club”.
Guillem went on to discuss Torres and why he “had to leave” Liverpool and how Barcelona’s transfer embargo may effect Deulofeu making a return to Everton next season, wrapping up a fascinating evening of impassioned, insightful football debate.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Guillem earlier last week, as we discussed his latest book, the English and Spanish title races, the city of Liverpool and the Brazil World Cup:
Matt Jones (MJ): First and foremost, congratulations on the success of your fantastic latest book, “Messi.”
Messi is still only 26-years-old and has many, many more years of soccer ahead of him. What was it that made you feel it was the right time to write this book?
Guillem Balague (GB): Thank you!
It’s mainly about the opportunities that arise. The book about Pep went well and the book’s publisher immediately asked “what shall we do next?” And I knew straight away that it had to be Messi.
It was a brilliant chance to discuss the confusion, the lies and myths that surround the player. I said to publishers that it has to be done with the Messi family and they backed it too.
When the publishers and the family come together to support you like that on such an exciting project, it’s an unmissable opportunity.
MJ: How did the experience of this most recent book compare to the writing of your previous book “Pep”?
GB: Well, without realizing it, I had starting working on a genre.
That goes back to 2005 when writing “A Season On The Brink,” which I wrote with Rafa Benitez. I was telling the story from on the inside of things and looking to gain the trust of these people.
With the Pep book—even though he wasn’t doing interviews at the time—I asked him would he do it and he said “yes.” In truth, it was a great time in his career to explain what was going on as it was his last year with Barcelona and there were lots of speculation.
MJ: As a writer, what are the main challenges that you face when writing a book about a player who I know you rate as the greatest of all time?
GB: The biggest challenge was to understand him, and on many completely different levels.
We actually have a lot in common! Both of us always want more. We’re insatiable when it comes to targets. After completing one we say “what’s the next one?”
Obviously they are completely different, but after completing the Pep book I looked straight away at doing the Messi book. After he wins something, he immediately looks to the next trophy or the next record.
So there’s that challenge to try and find common ground, which we did. Then, to find out what made him become the best. What comes natural? What is down to instinct? What is down to learning? To explore all of that.
MJ: Messi and Barcelona are currently involved in a fascinating title battle in Spain along with the two Madrid sides. Is the rise of Atletico Madrid something that’s been embraced in Spain?
GB: Well, it’s what we’ve been waiting for it since 2004, which was when Valencia last won the title.
Atletico are really creating a challenge for Real Madrid and Barcelona. When Jose Mourinho was at Real Madrid, he was insistent that Barca used to win things because of bias from authorities, not because of their brilliance.
This year, the performances of Atletico have seen that discourse collapse and the Real Madrid fans aren’t happy! Against Rayo Vallecano, Carlo Ancelotti was whistled, Karim Benzema was whistled, Gareth Bale was whistled and even Cristiano was whistled!
MJ: Who do you want to win the La Liga title?
GB: The only team out of the three who have maximized their potential is Atletico Madrid. When looking to win a championship, that should be target of everyone and they’ve done that.
MJ: Do you think a title win for Simeone’s team would do much to upset the long-term duopoly of Real Madrid and Barcelona? Or merely inspire the big two to go out and spend even more in the transfer window?
GB: For Barcelona, it would make them reinforce their style, which is something Tata Martino seems to be a little confused about at the moment.
Real Madrid will continue to do what they do. They may not have won much under Florentino Pezez, but they’ll still continue to spend big money on the very best players. That won’t change.
MJ: There’s a comparatively close title race going on in England. How impressed have you been with Liverpool, your favorite English team?
GB: The energy, dynamism, hunger, and work without the ball is so, so refreshing.
It’s so refreshing to get a team like Liverpool. Don’t forget, since 2004 there’s only been one team that have won the title aside from Manchester United or Chelsea.
Long term, I do worry that they’re not solid enough and they might be found out in Europe next season. A midfield three of Steven Gerrard, Philippe Coutinho and Jordan Henderson is a little overbalanced offensively.
But give the ball to the S-S-S (Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling) and there is a fantastic danger and real mobility that is compensating for that. They might not be balanced, but they are fantastic to watch at the moment!
MJ: Brendan Rodgers is doing a magnificent job at Anfield. Is he a manager who could manage on the continent one day?
GB: Well he speaks Spanish!
I’m not sure about Spain, unless it was maybe Barcelona. But they don’t want him at the moment, not yet anyway!
Really, there is nowhere else in the world like the Premier League and I expect he will continue to build with Liverpool for a long, long time.
MJ: Across Stanley Park, Roberto Martinez is doing an equally impressive job at Everton. Is he someone you expect will go to the very top of the game too?
GB: I said when he got the job about the phenomenal amount of work he puts in, so there’s little surprise that he’s doing well. There are a lot of things in his favor at the moment.
I expect he will make it to the very top. But I think Brendan will be at Liverpool for a long time and I think Roberto will be at Everton for a long time, too.
MJ: You’re in Liverpool to host an evening of Spanish themed football debate with Fernando Hierro and Alfredo Relaño. I’m sure you always enjoy coming back here after you studied and subsequently lived in the city. What was it about Liverpool that appealed to you?
GB: I’ve always said that if you want to learn the English language, come to Liverpool.
Going out in town to meet people is always an experience, always a party! If you go to Matthew Street at 2PM in the afternoon on a weekday, you can guarantee there will be a party.
There is a great atmosphere about the city and a great sense of community from the local people. I still have a flat there and always love coming back.
MJ: At the moment, football discussion deviates little from the enthralling title races in both England and Spain. But looking further down the line, are you expecting Spain to retain their title in Brazil this summer?
GB: I think the key when it comes to Spain is that they have managed to become such a competitive team that if they concede early they are capable of recovering.
There is obvious experience, but there are some younger players coming through too. It is very unfortunate that Thiago has picked up a serious knee injury and may miss the tournament.
For some of the more experience players, it is the last chance. Especially for the likes of Iker Casillas, Xabi Alonso and Xavi Hernandez.
I feel you need to have the hunger to win this title. Argentina, Brazil and Germany will have it a little more than Spain, but hopefully Spain’s experience will compensate for that. I still think they are one of the best four teams in the tournament.
MJ: And for Argentina and Messi? Brazil 2014 is set up perfectly for him, isn’t it?
GB: Perhaps, maybe if they had a defense and a goalkeeper!
But yes, he has highlighted this World Cup from a very early age as a vital moment in his career.
MJ: You’ve written excellent books about one of the managerial greats and one of the finest players ever, what next for you? Do you have anything in the pipeline?
GB: One of the managerial greats? You mean Rafa Benitez, right? (Laughs)
I’m working on a deal at the moment that would see me write three books in five years. Nothing is finalized yet, but keep an eye out.
For more information about Guillem, where you can purchase his books and upcoming events, visit his website: www.guillembalague.com.