Guillem Balague is one of the most respected football journalists in the world.
He has been a key fixture in Sky Sports‘ coverage of Spanish football for 20 years, appearing weekly on Revista de La Liga, as well as being a regular pundit.
In the summer of 2018, he moved to BBC Sport, where he is presenting a weekly Radio Five live show on European football.
In 2013, he wrote the first and only authorised account of the life of Lionel Messi. Since then, he has published books about the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Mauricio Pochettino.
We sat down with Guillem to discuss how he built his successful career in football journalism, and what he has learned from some of the world’s elite footballers along the way.
Thanks for speaking to Human Window, Guillem. Tell us a bit about your own story. How did you build your own career in journalism and what drove you down this path?
I finished University in Barcelona in 1991. It was a Journalism degree and that takes five years in Spain. At that point, I thought that I need to go to England to learn English. I had done it for a year-and-a-half in school but really I didn’t speak it much. I said I would go to England for three months, after my first experience as a journalist in the summer.
I went to Liverpool to stay with a family in a room that they set up for me. It was a scary trip from the airport to the house because I could not understand a word that they were saying. I thought that after a year-and-a-half in school I would have picked something up but my mind was blocked. There were no Spanish people around in Liverpool and it was not the done thing when you’ve finished University, to go abroad.
I found myself with no support network apart from the family that I was living with. In fact, I could only ring home once a week. I would send letters to my friends to keep in touch. I felt quite isolated but it was the perfect immersion into the whole world of England and Liverpool.
I wasn’t doing any journalism at the time. I was working in a pub, distributing bread… doing whatever job was available. Every time I rang Spain to say, ‘Look, I’m in England, I can write articles for you?’, people would be very welcoming but you would not expect to earn any money from it. Of course, at that time you have to say it’s OK. So it was a bit of working for no money, doing whatever. You have to tell that story because that’s my path. I don’t know how others did it.
The other jump was that I started writing a lot of stories for a tabloid magazine called Lecturas about Princess Diana, Camilla and Prince Charles. They paid me for a year-and-a-half, enough to survive while I was still living in a room in a house.
The big jump was in 1996. I was still in Liverpool and I crossed paths with somebody who ran a magazine called Don Balon. Somebody has bought that name and it’s now a clickbait website, but at the time it was a very prestigious football magazine. I said that I was in England and if they wanted me to do some writing on football, I could. They said: ‘go ahead’.
The year after, I rang Sky Sports. They had been doing Spanish football for a year and I told them I’m here if they need anything. They invited me to their studios and put me in front of a camera without me knowing that was what they were going to do. I did my first show, and at half-time they asked me if I wanted to do a highlights show.
Once you’re in television, doors open for you big-time. That would be how I got into television and from then on, many other things happened.
What was it that attracted you to England in the first place. Was it the football or did you just want to learn English?
My life was not really related to football until 1996. Before that, I was a season ticket holder at Espanyol but it wasn’t my biggest passion at all. I considered it as one of my top passions but not my only one. So it wasn’t the football that brought me to England. But I became a Liverpool fan, because having been an Espanyol fan and won nothing, I just went for a team that was winning things – and then stopped winning things!
In 1991, I moved to Liverpool, because a guy who was doing an Erasmus year was looking for a place to stay and my family gave him accommodation for a few months. We got on really well and he was from Liverpool. He asked if I wanted to come to England. I wanted to learn the language and come out of my comfort zone and I said I would go for three months.
A year-and-a-half later he said, ‘mate, you’re still here, you’d better find somewhere else!’. They were called the Jackson family and they looked after me big-time. I still love them and am still in touch with them.
I then looked for my own place in Liverpool. I went to England just to learn English. I said I would go for three months and stayed forever. I’ve now lived in both countries [England and Spain] for easily 25 years or so.
How important is having a proactive approach when you’re just starting out in your career?
It’s everything. I worked very hard for the first few years for no reward. Around two or three years after arriving in England, I remember in one month I earned £1,000. I just could not believe that I had earned £1,000 and I could not imagine in what other situation ever I could have more than that. I had made it, that was it. With £1,000 a month, I could survive and I was an adult now.
Those are the kinds of things that you celebrate, and you don’t forget that it takes you a while to get there. You don’t forget that while I was staying with the Jacksons when I wasn’t earning money in the first year and a half or so, they knew I was very proud so they would offer me food for dinner but not saying: ‘we see that you don’t have any money for food, do you want some?’. It would be like: ‘we’ve got some extra food today and if you want some, you can have some – and they did that every night.” You don’t forget those things, because that’s where you’ve come from and that’s what you need to go through to realise the value of things.
One thing I had very clear is that you have to find your own destiny. Quite clearly, I realised very early on in my life that one of the few things I could do was write and communicate. That was my passion. It wasn’t so much football or a particular thing, but communicating, either via radio or writing or telling stories. I wanted to make a career out of that.
You have to get people to know you and I remember sending faxes to the Daily Mirror and the Daily Telegraph – and everybody that I could get the number of. I remember one conversation I had with the Mirror. I told them I was a Spanish journalist and could do whatever they needed, and I think the guy on the phone said: ‘Why would I need a Spanish journalist?’ and hung up. You ignore that, but it’s in the back of your mind and you have to try and find a way to convince them.
I continued knocking on doors and the Sky Sports door was probably the 100th door I knocked on. Once you sense the opportunity, you just go for it and when they offered me to do the highlights show, later on I found out that they had asked three other people. If any of them had said yes, my path would have been completely different.
So you can be proactive, but you also have to have the luck to find that the door is open and that you’re allowed in. I remember when I went to see Gerard Houllier. It wasn’t an interview, I just wanted to know him. I had been doing Spanish football on Sky for a few years and I thought nobody was watching.
I was walking through the canteen [at Liverpool] and then Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher and others came by and said hi, and shook hands with me. Then I thought: ‘Oh right, they don’t see me as a journalist, they see my almost like one of them, and I’m allowed into their world’. It was fascinating.
And of course, you sense that the opportunity is there to create your own persona and profile. So I pushed on with what I was trying to do, which is telling stories from the other side, but be trusted enough to be allowed in too, which is a difficult balance to keep sometimes.
You’ve worked closely with some of the world’s elite footballers and managers. From your interactions with them over the years, are there any specific character traits that stood out to you as being important to their success?
You cannot put them all in the same bag, but in the majority of them, there is a sense of humbleness. Determination, for sure – this is their moment in life and they are going to take it with both hands because it’s hard for them to get to that level. But there’s also a humbleness that has always surprised me.
Still, I’m in awe of these guys. In the last week I’ve been with Ander Herrera, Alexis Sanchez, Robert Lewandowski, Virgil van Dijk – and I’ve had chats with another 20 of them. And I’m always in awe, because I know that they are at the top of their profession and that requires a lot of work. But all of them that I’ve mentioned treat me like an equal.
It’s not just with me – that’s what they do with people. They don’t sense that they’re superior because they’re on the television or have won 100 games.
The other thing is that determination. Because they go through so many filters, to actually get to the top, you have to have to be very clear and have no doubt at all that this is the strongest version of you.
At the elite level, that’s what you find. Then, of course, you have Ronaldo and Messi. That’s yet another level that will require a different discussion. But it terms of everybody else, I think those two are are biggest traits.
I’ve got to ask about Ronaldo and Messi now! What sets them apart and what have you seen in them that you haven’t seen in others?
If you and me try and make it in this profession, we would go and go and go but at some point we would get to a limit of what we can do, or what our body or mind allows us to do. Then, you have top level elite who have gone even further. And beyond that is Messi and Ronaldo, in football anyway.
In my Messi biography, there’s a chapter I’m thinking of revising, which is called ‘the 10 things you need to be Messi’. I added one at the end which is luck. You have to have the luck to get into it and the luck to, when you get it wrong, be allowed to get it right again. Those 10 things, only Messi and Ronaldo have.
It comes via genes, the family environment, the right clubs, the consistency… a lot of things. Yes, only they have it. I’m looking back into that because I would like to get these 10 things and then talk to the likes of Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant or Tiger Woods to see if they also agree and try to explain why they are geniuses at their work.
What sets them apart is that, Carles Puyol, or Raul, or Ruud van Nistelrooy, say: ‘OK, enough’. But Messi and Ronaldo just go two steps ahead of that.
I think we are talking about the best striker in the history of the game in Cristiano Ronaldo and the best player in the history of the game in Messi. Two exceptional human beings at the same time, which is quite unique.
Do you think that difficult circumstances when you’re young can propel peopler to greater heights?
I wish everything could be explained that simply. I’m sure that there is something on that. For sure, if you’re hungry when you are a kid, you will make sure that you’re never hungry again, no doubt. But then I was thinking, in my case for instance, it was not a difficult childhood. I didn’t need anything. We were comfortable, but I still felt like I wanted more.
I did the first book and now I’m on my seventh. How did that happen? Then I wanted to do the next one – but the next one was Pep Guardiola – and he wasn’t talking to anybody. I thought: ‘I will get him to talk to me’. After that, it was Messi, and after that it was Cristiano.
That didn’t come from thinking that I don’t want to be poor again. I’m pretty sure my early days in Liverpool helped to motivate me. It’s good to remember all that, but in my case it was a sense of respect for work and your profession, and that you have to give everything to it. That’s what I saw in my mum and dad.
I don’t know whether it’s educational or genes, but it doesn’t necessarily have to do with that absence of love, which for instance is what I think motivates Cristiano. Or the absence of material things, which is what Alexis Sanchez has had with him. I’m sure there is other stuff as well that helps them to get to the top.
How important is listening to your intuition?
When I hear people like career advisors telling you that you have to think forward and you have to have an idea of where you’re going and have a target, it doesn’t relate to me at all. I understand that people need to see something in front of them to go and fight for. But that wasn’t my case.
For me, it was about doing the best I could do every day. Whatever the target was that day, it was making sure I did the best I could do. Maybe it would be getting to know somebody new or making a trip to see something or learning another language. This is what I had to do.
I look back now and see that I have a narrative of how I made it here, but at the time, even when money wasn’t coming in, not in one moment did I feel down or stressed or feeling that it’s not the way. I just kept going.
There must have been a time when I thought that this is not happening and I’d better look for something else. But I don’t remember a single time of it. I remember the good things but generally forget the bad things. In my mind I’ve got this idea that I’ve always been happy just searching and chasing. That has been my motivation – to keep going and find new ways of communicating. Very early on I found out that’s my passion and that’s what I want to do.
I’m still searching and fighting to communicate in different ways. Now I absolutely love my job at the BBC and BBC Radio Five live. I love radio but I’m preparing for a new book and the YouTube channel is taking my time as well, and I’m enjoying that. It’s all about communicating.
How do you deal with negative comments and criticism on social media?
Because I got into Twitter very early on and had a webpage, I understood that was part of the job. Also, it was a way of communicating and a way of letting people know what you’re doing, so it had a lot of positives.
Then there was a time when I broke the news that Fernando Torres was leaving Liverpool and I got death threats and all kinds of other things. I thought: ‘What? I thought this was a forum to discuss things.’ That’s when it all changed. I realised there are people out there that find it easy to throw darts and bullets to people they don’t know, even if they faced then in the street, the wouldn’t do that.
It took me a while to understand where that all came from because it affects you. There is no doubt that it affects everybody. I know it affects players. Managers tend to enclose themselves a bit more because every decision they make, you get all kinds of opinions about them, so it’s better to isolate yourself from that. Players don’t do that until they grow a thick skin.
You have to do that as a communicator – because it confuses you. It can take you down paths you don’t want to go down just to please people and you have to stop that very quickly. The way to create that thick skin that I wasn’t born with is to try to understand where it comes from.
I read a lot about it, why people would behave like that and troll people. I realised that it’s us. Not them, it’s us. Human beings are like that. That’s what we’re like. At a certain level, we all do it. Some people are more cowardly and they do it more often and they get a kick out of it. Other people do it without knowing the consequences and that’s the danger. Everything you do in life has got a consequence.
After I reached this realisation about five or six years ago, it makes me laugh when I see somebody having a go. I guess that’s what you would call creating a thick skin for yourself.
It also comes from a lot of anonymous people because it empowers them. If you get empowered by that, you have to look at yourself and say – is that the way to empower myself, through negativity and having a go at somebody I don’t know? What else is there in your life that gives you that kind or power? Maybe you should look into that. But that’s their issue, not mine.
Knowing what you know now, what advice would you go back and give your 18-year-old self?
I did it right. At 18, I surrounded myself by people who knew more than me, and I listened. I tried to please people, and perhaps you don’t need to do that so much.
But generally, I had this impression that I had to improve myself as a person and to be a better communicator. That is all interlinked. I had the intuition at 18 that if I developed my good instincts, it would be good for my profession as well.
To 18-year-olds in general, I would say that it’s a long-term game. Whatever you’re in, just keep going. Don’t think short-term and try to realize that everything you do has consequences, good and bad.
If you want to develop yourself, you have to work at it. And ‘work at it’ means sometimes doing things you don’t want to do. Try not do things that in 20 years’ time, you’ll feel like you shouldn’t have done. Working in a company that’s about clickbait… maybe you shouldn’t depending on what your morals are and what you think of it.
But don’t be scared – that’s the other thing. I’ve seen so many scared 18-year-olds that don’t want to make the step towards something they don’t know. Just go for it. Get it wrong. Getting it wrong is how you’re going to learn.
I’m sure a lot of people have heard this a million times, but I really believe in it because I’ve experienced it.
Where’s the best place for people to find out more about you and stay up to date with your work?
Twitter is where everything goes in the end. On Twitter I mention events or books that are coming out and stuff that I do for the BBC and my newspaper AS.
I’m also on Instagram and YouTube is another place to find some of the interviews I do.