Guillem Balague Exclusive: Author Talks Pep Guardiola, Barcelona, Rafa Benitez

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Guillem Balague Exclusive: Author Talks Pep Guardiola, Barcelona, Rafa Benitez
Photo courtesy of www.guillembalague.com

Guillem Balague is one of the world's most recognisable football experts. The trusted Sky Sports pundit spends his time talking all things Spanish on Revista de La Liga, writing for The Times and staying ahead of the curve on Twitter.

He is also a seasoned author. Balague's latest work, Pep Guardiola: Another Way of Winning is currently on sale here.

Last week, I met up with Balague to discuss the book, Barcelona, Guardiola's move to Bayern Munich and to gather his thoughts on Chelsea's decision to install Rafa Benitez as manager.

 

B/R: How did the process of writing the book come about?

I did Season on the Brink with Orion on Liverpool's Champions League victory against Milan, and they were very happy with it, because it wasn't an official book. Using the words of Chris Bascombe, who I admire, he called it 'the blueprint' of what happened. So, it kind of became official. It was sold in the Liverpool shops and it sold really well.

Since 2005, we felt 'okay, let's do something together.' I suggested things and we didn't agree. We didn't have our hearts in it, there were other things going on—and then they said Pep Guardiola.

Now, that's interesting. At that point, I asked, 'what do you know about Pep Guardiola?' Nothing. Some of the people I asked were working with me at Sky, and they said 'no, nothing!' There's a mystery here, a story to tell.

I said I will only do it if I can talk to him, and as you know, he wasn't talking to anybody. The players weren't talking to anybody either. So I'm thinking, who am I going to talk to? I thought, okay, I'll talk with Pep and if he says yes I'll go back to Orion. And he said yes!

That's why I'm always saying it took me 20 years to write the book. Without all that baggage before you cannot go to Pep Guardiola and say, 'Hi, I want to do a book about you.' And get a positive response

 

B/R: Was it an easy process getting Pep on board?

It was easy. I explained to him that I didn't want to do an authorised biography—he didn't want to do an autobiography. So, I thought, it's going to be my book on you. My vision of you. I'm not very close to you, I'm an Espanyol fan, so I'm not in love with you.

I understand what Barcelona are doing but it's not my team, so people who are very close to Pep perhaps in my eyes deserved more than me to do that book. They always said, 'We cannot do it, we're too close.'

In Spain, it's very black and white now, Madrid and Barcelona, Mourinho and Pep, Madrid press and Barcelona press, and I thought I seem to be in a good position if Pep says yes. So, that was it, by having these years (of experience), I could get into the Barcelona changing room and speak to the players there—which they were happy to do. Some of them are friends anyway, but they needed his permission.

The biggest thing he did for me was to contact Sir Alex Ferguson by email. I (went to meet) Ferguson and he was such a good conversation, as always with him. I thought if I ask him for a foreword, would he mind? He said 'no, go ahead.'

 

B/R: That's a combination of arguably the world's two most renowned managers...

Completely, completely. I am so lucky.

Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

 

B/R: What was the greatest challenge when you were writing the book?

You know what? The hardest bit is now. It's now because I'm dealing with the Spanish version as well. Now, you realise two things: the language and rhythm and style of the languages change completely.

 

B/R: Did you write in English and Spanish?

Yeah, I wrote about 80 percent in English and 20 percent in Spanish depending on the mood or the time. Then it got translated by a friend and edited as well. So now is the hardest bit, because at the time I'm so excited by the whole project.

Of course, the closer you get to Pep, his world and the Barcelona setup, the more in awe you are of the whole thing. But also, the more you find out—you could see he isn't going to continue. He cannot continue. He's actually physically and mentally tired, and also affected by everything that was going on. Also, you could see the players not getting the message completely anymore. You could see it.

Eventually we broke the story of Pep Guardiola leaving Barcelona. He was telling the players—I knew 10 minutes before he went to the changing room—and at the same time we were on Sky Sports doing it live. By the way... Live! Which is an amazing thing. We're doing a press conference of a foreign manager at a foreign club live on Sky Sports News. That was a great thing, good television.

 

B/R: Do you think Pep's consistent level of success made him tired? Would the players have become complacent if he stayed any longer?

Not complacent, but it gets to a point where you're so demanding that it doesn't matter how charming you are, how well you express your ideas, what your aura is. It gets to a point where you're like, 'Psssh!'

Players want the easiest life possible, as Ferguson says in the foreword, they just want an easy life. Most of the players anyway. It was so demanding that the performances started suffering. They started conceding goals from corners, set-pieces and counters. Little details were missing.

Pep knew what was going on. He could see it didn't matter how much work he put in on training, how many chances he gave, things weren't being corrected. He invested so much emotionally in the whole thing that it gets to a point where you may have to say to a player who you love so much—who is like a son—that he's not playing, or he has to be sold. He got to that stage and he was like, 'No, I cannot do that, so I better go.'

In Spain, a lot has been done of my interpretation of the Mourinho effect—his almost Chinese torture that affected Pep emotionally. It is not the only reason why he left, but certainly is another one of them.

 

B/R: The English press often focuses on managers not being given a chance—they need years to build something. With Pep it sounds like he built that and got to a point where there was little need to go any further. A bit like Arsene Wenger seven or eight years ago...

You have to know when to leave, that's one of the secrets of life. I learnt that very early on, you have to go one minute before you're sacked or one minute before people get fed up with you.

That's the interesting thing about Ferguson; nobody knows when he's going to leave.

From what he's telling everybody, as long as he's healthy he'll keep going. But he's got a peculiar way of dealing with things. He's obviously not in as much of the day-to-day stuff as he was, and that's the way to survive.

But also, the pressure's completely different at Barcelona than Manchester United. It is different: you have to do press conferences and deal with whatever comes from Madrid. Ferguson deals with United in a way where he manages the whole thing well.

 

B/R: What did you make of Pep's decision to go to Bayern and what was the journalistic process the days before the news?

(It is a) Fascinating decision that makes sense from so many points of views. It is an historical club, very well run and in a league that is up and coming. A league that will survive the (economic) crisis without much difficulties. Full stadia, passion, and lots of quality players in the squad. A lot in Bayern's favour.

Interestingly enough, a couple of days before it got announced (Bayern didn't want to make it public, but were forced to by speculation that started in Italy, when AC Milan told journalists they couldn't get Pep as he had close a deal with Bayern) I approached his family.

They told me he had not agreed anything with anybody (they were protecting Jupp Heynckes and Pep) and I reported that was what they were categorically saying. But at the same time I was getting those strong hints from both Italy and Germany that the deal was close to be announced so the day before it became public we discussed in Sky Sports how far the negotiations with Bayern had gone.

Photo courtesy of www.guillembalague.com

The nature of this business means that old tweets get picked and misconstrued and used by some to twist the reporting of the story, but you have to accept 'armchair' journalists and 'armchair' judges will always think they can do a better job than the professional journalist.

I laugh at the messages people post after events or transfer deals take place. Everybody seems to know how to be a journalist these days and in reality they haven't got a clue how it works and how to get stories. And everybody thinks it is all black and white, but there are so many factors that decide if a player moves or how a deal gets done.

 

B/R: Is there anything you didn't get into the book that you really wanted to include?

Actually, I've never thought about that. I think he more of less describes what he's after next—so what people are reading now, that he's going to Bayern Munich—it still makes sense because this is still his life and way of thinking.

I spoke to everybody I wanted to speak with. Again, Louis van Gaal had a blackout of media. I said 'Pep Guardiola' and it worked with him. Everybody was happy to talk.

 

B/R: Do you expect Pep to be as successful at Bayern Munich as he was at Barcelona?

It's impossible. Fourteen titles out of 19, that's never, ever, ever going to happen again. But, as he says, he's in a position where he has already done the success bit and is now going to try and coach.

 

B/R: Pep's position at Bayern Munich appears similar as at Barcelona. He had the rivalry with Madrid, in Munich he now has a two-horse race with Borussia Dortmund...

Yeah, he wanted to go somewhere that has legends within the club and the right infrastructure—he's a romantic isn't he? The idea of being part of a legendary club is fantastic. So, he was always going to go to Bayern Munich or Manchester United.

But also, he needed a club that can win things straight away. Or the other alternative, because one of his closest friends said a couple of weeks ago before Pep announced it, 'He will surprise everybody.'

How about if he goes to Brescia or somewhere like that? Take them from Serie B to Serie A—and that will perhaps be the next thing he will do. Atletico Bilbao, maybe something like that, these are the kinds of things he has flirted with.

Raul has been telling him marvellous things about the Bundesliga. For a year, and while we were talking, Pep was saying, 'Germany, there's something about Germany.' I was thinking, no, the Premier League is waiting.

 

B/R: The Bundesliga appears to be very much on the up at the moment—even David Moyes said he would like to coach in Germany one day.

Yeah, somebody will have to ask David Moyes what kind of offers he's had in the past, that he's rejected.

 

B/R: I can imagine he's had top offers.

From Germany (nods). I think he deserves everything. One of my favourite men in football. I love talking football with him. He's open about everything: open eyes, open ears, he's not like, 'I know everything.'

Stu Forster/Getty Images

 

B/R: I would love to see him go to Dortmund while Pep is at Munich.

That would be good. Yeah, yeah, definitely.

 

B/R: This season we've seen stars like Santi Cazorla and Michu come to the Premier League with huge success. Do you think English players need to start going further afield for their style to develop?

I'm convinced that with the amount of information that gets into Britain now, and the humble approach that coaches have got to the game, they don't think they know everything anymore. They don't behave like that anymore.

Foreigners are coming in, in the same way we had them in La Liga 40 years ago. Plus, new coaches—followers of La Liga for instance—there are a lot of them who have followed it since they were kids and they can see what it means in Spain.

They watch games, they watch training and they read books; all of these people are the ones who will be the foundation of English football in the next decade. You mix that with the pace of the Premier League, the physical aspect of the Premier League, and I think—in say six or seven years time—the Premier League should be the best in the world.

As you know, fans don't want teams to just play long ball all the time, so all of that mixes into a perfect combination for England to take on the world.

 

B/R: People used to speak about Arsenal as England's best 'footballing' side, but now we have teams like Swansea, Everton and Wigan playing in a similar style. Then you get teams like Stoke, who everyone outlines as a rugby side...

I don't have anything against Stoke. Again, Tony Pulis is an open-minded manager. The way he's doing things can hurt other teams—and it does. It's only been Chelsea that has beaten them by that much at home.

 

B/R: When you've got the squad Pulis has—many are physical players—Stoke shouldn't set up any other way, should they?

They look for that. You have to have a style and philosophy—that is their philosophy. It makes life very difficult.

Someone like Pep would think football is about people paying money to watch a game—they want something more. He's been taught that, it's been the Spanish way since the '50s. There is this idea that football is a spectacle. It's not a business and it's not just about winning. He's got that in his head.

 

B/R: Pep will have to contend with a number of personalities at Munich. Do you think he'll be able to rein in players like Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben?

I'm not sure if he is wary about that. Being away for a year, and being in the freezer, where people write books about him, his aura was going to grow in the eyes of everybody. Even though Barcelona are doing really well, people have got really short memories. So they would say, 'Oh, Barcelona doesn't even need Pep.'

Victor Fraile/Getty Images

Pep arrived when Frank Rijkaard was there, when the club was in disarray—they hadn't won anything for two years. He had to take huge decisions, like getting rid of Deco and Ronaldinho. The foundations of what we are seeing are Pep's. There's no doubt. He changed football and he changed the dynamic of Barcelona.

Now Tito Vilanova, who understands what was being done, has just taken it to another level because the foundations are already there. Growing and learning is about that, isn't it? You read the book, you start understanding and you apply it.

 

B/R: Does Vilanova have his first La Liga title in the bag already?

Yeah, oh yeah. The league is one of the most competitive leagues in many, many years—take away Barcelona. So close, so interesting. Atletico Madrid, Real Betis and what they are doing, Valencia coming back, Malaga, so it's one of the most competitive leagues in years.

Any team that beats Barcelona's record will have to win the first 19 games. They have won 18 and drawn one. It is like, 'Ah, the Spanish league is crap.' I'm sorry, no. This Barcelona (team) is amazing and their standing is the best in the world ever.

 

B/R: I think La Liga is competitive in a different way to the Premier League. Right now, the teams below Barcelona are battling it out. In England, you have a three horse race that keeps people excited.

You take Manchester City last year. Since 2004 to 2012, in Spain, Barcelona and Real Madrid have won all the leagues. After Valencia, it was all Real Madrid. Since 2004, the Premier League all Manchester United and Chelsea. Then Manchester City have won it. Petrol dollars and all that added a new dimension to them—but what is competitive?

The thing is, the English league is very, very exciting. That's what people are used to here, so they want to see box-to-box—they don't want to see so many tactics. The Spanish league is so complex in the way every team plays differently, how the managers can see weaknesses in other teams, which is how we like it.

 

B/R: I wanted to ask you about the FIFA World Team of the Year. It features 11 La Liga players, do you agree with that? Should anybody from another league have been involved?

I suppose. You can argue for left-back position. People don't realise the value of Marcelo. They should realise now. Marcelo has been out for three months and Madrid have struggled. It's not by chance.

Vincent Kompany had a good season. But, you know, Spain won the European Championship with Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique.

Robin van Persie, Radamel Falcao as well. It's so equal, they could have taken it either way. Okay, one or two could have come from another league, we're still talking about eight or nine from La Liga, but I don't like to get into the argument of which league is best.

 

B/R: Isn't that something people are obsessed with?

It is great for people to argue. Sometimes I just do it to wind people up to see their reactions. The way the English league is run is to be admired, but at the same time they are running into debts, clubs should be careful.

But they still have money to pump into them and spend. That keeps the wheel going round.

The way it's run is fantastic, the atmosphere, full stadiums, television, everything is wonderful. The package is wonderful in England. But, I'll take La Liga in terms of quality of the players.

 

B/R: Before we part, what are you thoughts on Rafa Benitez's treatment at Chelsea?

It's fascinating that Luis Felipe Scolari, Fabio Capello and Rafa Benitez are laughed at in England. Top managers who can do a lot of good for their teams. I don't know why that is, but it is a 'fact' as Rafa would say.

I've been thinking of big clubs in history that have actually had such a big go at their managers. Not based on results and not based on performances. Certainly not based on the work this person puts into the team, the hours he puts into it, what his CV is, what his history is. I can only think of Van Gaal in his second time at Barcelona—not at Bayern Munich, not at Milan, not at Juve, not at Real Madrid, not really, not really.

So, I'm fascinated to know where all of this comes from. I know, I heard all of the stories where he comes from. It's interesting that Chelsea fans I know of are telling me the ones with the campaign are a minority.

But I think it's all based on one thing. Fans have lost power; they don't have any power anymore, anywhere. They don't have power towards their clubs, they don't have power towards the players, on the decisions, nothing.

Jamie McDonald/Getty Images

When the club is a bit weak, it is their chance to have a say, an influence. They smell the weakness and they grab a victim (Rafa in this case) and don't let go. It is their way to feel influential, powerful again. They have created almost like a celebrity fan set—we will be the ones that will get rid of a manager and impose the one we want.

But, I say, you are affecting the team and its performance. Well, that minority doesn't seem to care—first it is us, what we think, what we say, me, me, me... very typical of this society.

It happened at Aston Villa, it happened at Newcastle and it happened at Chelsea. Fans thought, 'No, definitely not Rafa, anyone but Rafa.' That was their decision, 'whoever, but not Rafa.' So, when they got Rafa in, it was putting to them, 'Sorry, but you don't have any power.' That's very annoying for that small group.

I think that's what it is but I would love to have a forum where I can chat to them, discuss, argue, shout at each other even, with respect always present. But a minority in that minority seem to prefer to insult in a kind of bullying way. I hate bullying, I love arguing. It is a shame some behave like that because football is to be loved, discussed, enjoyed.

 

A huge thank you to Balague for taking time out of his busy schedule to speak with me, and to the staff at Waterstones, Leeds. Be sure to post your reactions below and follow him on Twitter right here. You can also chat to me over at:

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