FIFA FUTURE – Guillem Balagué: Football transcends borders

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The interest in football on the Rock reflects its diverse culture. The combination of Latin flair and stalwart British determination is a direct catalyst to locals following most European leagues in one way or another. But the English and Spanish leagues are the ones that dominate our soccer psyche with partisans on both sides furiously arguing as to which league is the pinnacle of the greatest sport in the word.

With his name bandied around intense high-level football conversations locally, Spanish football expert Guillem Balagué has unwittingly added extra spice to ‘footy talk’ through his strong opinions. He visited Gibraltar last year for the first time as a speaker for the Gibraltar Literary Festival and was quick to accept the invitation to return to the Rock for this year’s edition.

The assertive pundit was surprised at the level of football knowledge expressed in Gibraltar and received a barrage of intellectual questions on two of the autobiographies he had on show; Pep Guardiola’s ‘Another Way of Winning’ and ‘Cristiano Ronaldo: The Biography’.

A key fixture in Sky Sports’ coverage of Spanish football, Balagué appears regularly both on live match coverage and on the weekly round-up show, Revista de La Liga, of which he is now presenter. He is also the UK Correspondent for Madrid-based Spanish sports newspaper AS with his work featuring regularly in Yahoo.com and The Telegraph.

He completed his journalism course at the Universitat Autònoma de Bellaterra (Barcelona) in the summer of 1991. He then moved to Liverpool where he worked as a correspondent on the oldest newspaper in Europe, Diari de Barcelona, and the magazines Lecturas and Cambio 16. In 1996, he was named English football correspondent of the soccer magazine Don Balón. And in 1997, he was contracted by Sky Sports to become the regular insider for Revista de la Liga. He went on to write several books, not least about Pep Guardiola, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, winning accolades galore for his work.

Lincoln beats Celtic 1-0 at the Victoria Stadium
Lincoln beats Celtic 1-0 at the Victoria Stadium

Ahead of his trip to Gibraltar, Balagué spoke about Team 54’s acceptance into FIFA, the progress made and what he could do to help as the Director of Football of Spartan South Midlands League Premier Division side Biggleswade United. The Spanish football expert gives us an insight into the exclusive new material in ‘Another Way of Winning’ with over 30,000 words featuring the coach’s time at Bayern Munich as well as his opinion on the man’s success stories in the world of football.

Fairy-tale story

What do you think of the decision to accept Gibraltar into FIFA and its implications in terms of more investment in local football?

I am convinced that football is a force of good and can help communities improve, not just in football. As a patron of the charity ‘Football Beyond Borders’ that uses the power of football as an educational tool to inspire young people to achieve their goals and make their voices heard, I am a supporter of people using football towards a positive outcome. The politics of the whole story are complicated and I wouldn’t want to get into it, but the fact remains that a group of peopled worked together to be recognised as a football community, which is something I have nothing against.

Have you watched any of Gibraltar’s matches? Do you believe the national side has improved since their debut Euro Qualifying campaign?

I watched the Sky Sports documentary created by one of my colleagues there, David Garrido that was very well done and extremely interesting. It allowed me to understand

Coombes and Schweinsteiger
Coombes and Schweinsteiger

which level you are at, the importance of defeat and victory and how Gibraltar has grown as a footballing nation. I followed the Celtic result closely and, by gaining more experience and improving the level of coaching, you can only improve. I am not sure what the expectations are from people locally, but for Gibraltar to give any team a game is a success in my eyes. This will bring more attention on the Rock and its players, but there is always a limit as to what you can do in terms of size, facilities and money.

Gibraltar was recently awarded another spot in European competition after outperforming Andorra and San Marino in the UEFA Club Coefficient rankings. With the Spanish lower leagues littered with clubs in financial struggle, up to what level do you think the Gibraltar Premier League could attract professional players from these leagues and others, considering that some local clubs already have professional coaches and offer competitive wages?

In terms of money, it depends on how competitive the league is. You are different from other small nations. There is such love for the game over here and a push to make an impact, for political reasons as much as for football reasons. The quality of football conversat

Perez was put to the test regularly during the UEFA campaigns
Perez was put to the test regularly during the UEFA campaigns

ion on the Rock is very high and that is what is making you reach further I think, plus the fact that there is money and investment in Gibraltar which can be put to good use. It is a very good combination to be able to improve and I will be following this with interest. Your leagues will be better than those in other developing football nations as some of them don’t even have any leagues.

There is no doubt that there are many attractions for players in lower leagues around Europe and further afield. Gibraltar offers a shortcut for them into European competition, to win titles and to become a star in the local league.

Gibraltar was hosted last month by the recently crowned European Champions, Portugal, in a friendly ahead of the World Cup Qualifiers. Do you think the Rock is making larger waves behind the scenes than its size suggests by securing a match of this stature?

The story of Gibraltar becoming a member of UEFA and then FIFA was everywhere and obviously, also in the Spanish media. I know about all the hard work the GFA has done in explaining what they are doing, but in the football world, there is so much going on that it is difficult to put that point across. However, it is just a matter of keeping at it and spreading the story as far as you can. But when you look at what you have done on the pitch since you joined, it should be well beyond anyone’s dreams. You have to think that way, especially when you compare to other small nations. You look like a much more serious team than many of those at a similar level have looked like for decades. I don’t think there is enough coverage of Gibraltar in the UK. The Sky Sports documentary put together by my colleague was excellent, but there needs to be more done to make an impact.

Walker battles with Khedira in EURO qualification
Walker battles with Khedira in EURO qualification

People love to root for the underdog. Do you think that Gibraltar could become everyone’s second team?

That is a little bit too much to ask I think, personally, I do not think this is the case and I am not sure if this feeling would be held in Spain. It is a good story, but in this day and age, for a story to last more than 15 minutes, it needs to be consistent. Gibraltar need to show that they are not a gimmick and are here to stay.

Do you enjoy returning to the Rock? What do you like the most about it?

It was a shock for me and I came over without any expectations. I just knew that it was a small place and there was a rock. But I was soon embraced by the local people and was recognised as I walked down Main Street. I did not know that Gibraltarians watched both English and Spanish football. The reception was great and the chat in the Garrison Library for the literary festival was fantastic. I went up the Rock to see the monkeys and the views which were beautiful. Another thing I was shocked about was the fact that you can visit the interior of the Rock and I am very excited to see this. The mix of old and new and the reclamation of land, it is like survival at high-speed, which is quite astonishing, so I didn’t think twice when approached to return.the_gibraltar_magazine_november_2016-web_page_064_image_0001

What’s the latest on your club Biggleswade United?

We are really happy how things have gone since we started two years ago. The sponsorship with Adidas has been renewed and we are the only grassroots team that they back. Top Eleven, our main sponsors, have also renewed their contract. We are still trying to fight and raise money for a 3G pitch in the area, where there are none. This is unbelievable, in my opinion, and we are forced to train in unsuitable conditions. I would like to find someone who could explain to me how I could install a 3G pitch to help generate funds for the community and gets the kids to play football.

Do you plan to meet with officials from the Gibraltar FA to explore any potential partnerships?

I will meet with the head of the Gibraltar Football Association while I am there. I am looking for players, so I hope to explore options with the national association to see if my club could act as a gateway into English football for Gibraltarian players. We are open to assist them in finding accommodation and a steady job in the area. These players would find themselves in a very professional environment with coaching of the highest calibre. We already have players who have gone on to bigger clubs in the MLS (through my contracts) as well as jumping several divisions in the UK. Sergio Urbano is a former Barcelona B player who played under Pep Guardiola, so we are attracting big players to our small club that is growing year on year. The door is open to anyone who wants to learn more about us.

I could also bring my team over to Gibraltar to play an end of season friendly. We have a Pro Licensed coach who is doing fantastically well for us and I may convince the federation to bring them over.

Another way of winning

What impresses you the most about Pep Guardiola’s footballing philosophy?

I have been privileged to have been able to follow him closely and what the passages in my updated edition show is that he is changing, or adapting his way. Everyone knows that he is obsessive and works tremendously hard in his style and vision, but what he found out in Bayern Munich is that sometimes the reality of football can crash on top of you. If he would have stayed at Barcelona, he would have no doubt evolved the idea, but in Bayern, he had to adapt himself towards the players. It is almost academic and is interesting how he explored different options to keep it going. For example, he asked Ribery to become his new Messi, a false number 9, and after a month, the Frenchman pleaded to return to the wing. These are instances of stumbling blocks he has faced. Having said that, he made Bayern one of the most interesting teams in the world and, according to the fans, he made them play the most attractive football they have ever seen. Sometimes players prevent you from achieving your goals and this could have been the situation here.

Pep Guardiola, Man City Head Coach
Pep Guardiola, Man City Head Coach

He is intent on conquering Europe’s top leagues, with the pressure at this level, is it important to impress from the off?

After six months at Bayern, I think he realised that the club did not know what he was really about. When it became clear that Toni Kroos would transfer to Real Madrid, the board offered Guardiola Sami Kadeira instead and, needless to say, he was not happy about that. Pep subsequently decided to work as a coach and not get involved in transfers. He had to make the best of what he had. The team lacked his preferred type of midfielders, he had too many forwards and let’s just say that it was not his ideal squad from the very beginning.

Guardiola had all the big clubs knocking on his door like Chelsea, Manchester United and PSG. He could have gone to any of them that he fancied, but he chose Manchester City because he knew that they would adopt his philosophy. That was the most important thing for him. He will still focus mainly on coaching, but it will be different than when he was at Bayern. To be honest, I don’t think he will be at City for longer than three years.

How do you think Guardiola is handling the British press?

I think that he is distancing himself from the media now. He has good relations with some Catalan journalists, but at the moment, he thinks that any judgments made on him will be solely on results. He is disappointed that some people in Germany believe he failed at Bayern because he did not win the Champions League even though he won the title with a record points tally. The reality is that he was never asked to win the Champions League.

At the moment, the media in the UK are still in awe of him and conversations in press conferences are about football, which is good.

Could Pep win everything with this City side, considering the resources available to the club?

I get the impression that people would like him to lose so that he does not get asked these questions anymore. It is almost impossible to win everything, so I think that it is very unfair to ask that of him. He has improved the side physically and mentally because he is a workhorse and a perfectionist in this area. Things have gone well. De Bruyne, Sterling and Nolito have upped their level this season. I am confident that he will have a spell of dominance domestically, but I do not think that City has the forwards that Barcelona, Madrid, or Bayern have. It is not going to be easy to make an impact in Europe.