When his much-anticipated book about Barcelona forward Lionel Messi hit the shelves in December, Guillem Balague found some time to talk to the Glasgow Guardian when his UK book tour came to Glasgow. The Sky Sports Spanish football maestro spoke about Messi, Barcelona and the Old Firm.
Guardian: Barcelona have played Celtic twice this season, most recently a 6-1 win at the Camp Nou, but both games they were without Messi. How different a team is Barcelona without him and are you surprised with how well the team is doing without him?
Balague: Well, are they doing well? They are doing well because they’ve got a very good team and with 95% of the teams they play they will beat them with or without Messi anyway. It is, though, quite clearly a different team without Messi because it becomes a more direct team. When he does get back it will be a much better Barcelona with him than without, obviously. We also haven’t really had the chance to see the Messi-Neymar combination yet. It’s interesting that against Real Madrid they were both playing on the wings, but I’m not sure if that experiment will continue. But Tata Martino is trying to find his best team in the meantime and it certainly helps to be getting the points while that process continues.
Guardian: Messi himself has said that the atmosphere at Celtic Park on a European night is one of the best in the world. Would you agree with that? Have you been there on a European night?
Balague: I’ve been to Celtic Park and I’ve been to Anfield as well on a Champions League night and they are both amazing. Amazing. Especially for those that aren’t used to that kind of noise and passion. I’ve certainly found that the passion is Glasgow is just unbelievable.
Guardian: And which is louder – the Camp Nou or Celtic Park?
Balague: Oh, Celtic Park. No doubt. Camp Nou is not a loud stadium. It reflects the kind of personality that Catalans have.
Guardian: Would you say it’s more like going to the theatre for Catalans? You know, sitting back with their bocadillos waiting to see a show.
Balague: Yeah, that’s right. It’s like “Come and entertain us.” Whereas here it’s about “Let’s have a good time.” There’s a difference.
Guardian: Across the city, there’s the legend of Rangers apparently coming close to signing Messi on loan back in 2005 under Alex McLeish. Can you explain a little more about that?
Balague: They weren’t close to signing him. What happened was there was a time when a bunch of teams realised that Leo was not playing for bureaucratic reasons and they just put their name there to see if he was available and, yeah, Rangers was one of them. Interestingly, there were no teams from England that did so, but no, Rangers weren’t close to signing him.
Guardian: Scotland may not be at the World Cup this summer, but bars like this one will be packed for it I’m sure. Do you think Messi has to win a World Cup before he retires to be considered one of the all-time greats like Pele and Maradona?
Balague: I don’t. But a lot of people do. I think he’s already there because of the consistency of how he does things, the stats, the records and all this at a time when everybody know how to defend and all teams can put together a defensive structure and in theory they should be able to stop this one man. But he just beats them all over and over again and he’s done it at the highest level, even in Champions League finals. And he has won the Under 20s World Cup for Argentina. So because he keeps doing it, and has been at the highest level since he was 17, in my eyes he’s the best. But I do know that a lot of people need him to win a World Cup first. I don’t see why there is so much emphasis on the World Cup. I understand the history of it, but the Champions League is harder to win.
Guardian: Do you think he will win a World Cup then? And do you think next summer is his best chance?
Balague: It is. They’ve put together a team that works to his strengths with a manager who understands him. It is his World Cup. And it has been in his mind since he was a kid, because he will be 26. Well, will he win it? We (Spain) won it four years ago, but had to stop a penalty against Paraguay in the second half of the 0-0 game. So anything can happen, but you clearly need luck as well.
Guardian: In one word, who will win this summer in Brazil?
Balague: I don’t know…
Guardian: That’s not one word!
Balague: OK. But I don’t know! I just hope we have a Brazil-Argentina final.
Guardian: Which of the group games are you most looking forward to? There are a few good ones after the draw last week.
Balague: Yeah, the Spain group is difficult. Spain-Chile will be interesting and Holland-Chile will be interesting. But which am I most looking forward to? Uruguay-England. Even more than Italy-England. The Uruguay-England game is going to be key in that group. And I think Uruguay, although they are poor defensively and had difficulties to get to the World Cup, coming through the play-offs, but I think they are probably the strongest team of that group.
Guardian: And last question. Right now the La Liga table goes Barcelona, Atlético Madrid and Real Madrid. What do you think the order will be at the end of the season?
Balague: I have my fingers crossed that Atlético Madrid can last because it would give the end of the season a very interesting twist. I think Real Madrid are going to win. They are progressively getting better and there’s still room for improvement. With Barcelona you get blurred by what happened against Celtic (the 6-1 win), but I’m not convinced. Of course, Messi will be back for the last four months trying to impress and you cannot discount them, but I think Real Madrid will win the league.
“Messi” by Guillem Balague is available in bookshops and online now.