Guillem Balague: Diana, football royalty and me
PUBLISHED: 09:54 28 March 2017 | UPDATED: 09:54 28 March 2017
© Sky Sports / Andi Southam 13th September 2011
Friends with the finest footballers on the planet, a journalist, author and presenter, Barcelona-born Guillem Balague these days calls Hitchin home. At the Biggleswade club he is passionate about, Layth Yousif spoke to the engaging expert about his surprising career
It’s not everyday the director of a football club picks you up from your house on a cold morning and happily drives you to its stadium to conduct the interview you’ve arranged. Nor is it commonplace for a hugely-respected and well-known broadcaster to make you a mug of tea and ask after your family once you get there. Or, that a journalist with nearly a million followers on Twitter mucks in by helping move a heavy table in the clubhouse before you sit down to talk.
But Herfordshire’s Guillem Balague is not your average football fan. In fact the Barcelona-born 46-year-old isn’t easy to categorise at all.
Guillem writes for Fleet Street broadsheets including The Times and Observer. He also appears as a pundit on Sky Sports’ Spanish football show Revista de la Liga and pens reports for top Madrid newspaper AS. If that wasn’t enough, he is the author of best-selling books on Liverpool FC, Pep Guardiola, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Oh, and he also makes time for his directorship of Biggleswade United in Bedfordshire.
So how did the Catalan end up in his adopted home of Hitchin, helping to run a club in the Spartan South Midlands League Premier Division?
At Biggleswade’s Second Meadow ground he says, ‘I arrived in Liverpool in 1991 after I’d finished my journalism course in Barcelona. I went to Liverpool through Erasmus – a pan-European student swap scheme – after my parents rented a room to a Liverpool lad. I said to him, “Can I come over and stay with you?” and he said, “Yes no problem”. I went for three months and ended up staying a year-and-a-half.’
Following his ambition to become a journalist, he rang Spanish newspapers to ask if they wanted stories from England. They did, but to pay the bills he also had to work in a bar and deliver bread, which saw very early starts. For several years it wasn’t sport he reported on, but the British royal family – and especially Diana – to a fascinated Spanish audience. This came to a dramatic conclusion when she was killed in a car crash in Paris in 1997. The death of the ‘people’s princess’ was a shock to many in Britain who greived in an unprecedented show of public emotion. Her death and its aftermath had a major impact on Guillem.
‘I had a very confusing insight into the English from her death because I believed they were brought up not to show their emotions. But of course during those weeks there was a real outpouring of grief. Diana represented a lot of ‘invisible’ people in a way which made them care about her. It was confusing because you have an idea of a country, but under the surface there’s so much more to learn.’
It was also personal for the journalist who had followed her life closely.
‘It was very sad. I was 28 and people don’t really disappear from your life at that age. But Diana did. And it was a shock. It was so very sad.’
Guillem wrote more than 40 newspaper pages on her death for the Spanish press. He then wrote around 50 more for various media outlets about her funeral.
‘I went down to cover Diana’s funeral. It was very sad and very moving. But her death and the reaction to it changed how many people around the world saw England. Before, many people thought England was just hooligans and gentlemen.’
Perception of the country was also changing due to the Cool Brittania movement in the arts, which also attracted Guillem.
‘It was a very interesting time to be living in the UK. You had all this creative energy including from the music scene, and it felt the UK was the centre of the world. I realised I had to be in London because that was where the work was.’
However he didn’t like the everyday experience of the capital. ‘No-one talks to you and it took too long to get to the airport. I decided I wanted to live in the country but near enough to London for my job. A friend mentioned Hitchin and I visited and really liked the place and ended up living here – it’s a wonderful place with a sense of history and community.’
After Diana’s death, Guillem landed a football reporter job at Sky Sports and hasn’t looked back – earning a reputation as a trusted, respected and knowledgeable voice in the fast-moving world of Spain’s La Liga. He is now known as a journalist and author who has the ear of some of the world’s best players.
In addition to his journalistic achievements, this passionate football fan is enjoying his role as director of football at Biggleswade United – enlisting fellow Sky Sports presenters to boost the club’s profile by being photographed with its kit.
‘Kate Abdo, David Garrido and Jim White all tell me I’m obsessed with the club and talk about it continuously at work.’
He adds that he is also asked about his ‘Biggleswade project’ when he bumps into global football stars like Messi, Maradona and former Barca boss Guardiola.
His friendship with major players in the game hasn’t affected him. He has no airs and graces. In fact he is utterly down-to-earth. It’s instructive to see during the course of our interview various people come over to have a chat and a joke with him, and he is as natural and genuine with them as he is on the TV screen. It’s refreshing to see.
Over the past two years he has taken a Biggleswade shirt with him to interviews with players and managers. ‘I thought wouldn’t it be nice if some of my friends in football signed it. Our Hall of Fame wall tells a story of who I’ve talked to over the last two years – it’s charming people are interested in the club.
‘I got invited to Jordan to meet Maradona, as we were both due to give a speech on stage. In the green room beforehand there were 10 Argentina shirts laid out on a table ready to be signed by him. At the end of the line was a Biggleswade shirt. Maradona decided he didn’t want to sign the shirts – so he passed down the line until he came to the Biggleswade top, when he stopped and said, “What’s this shirt?” So I explained it’s a Biggleswade shirt from the ninth division of English football – and it must have sparked something in him – so he asks me if I want him to sign it!’
As our interview draws to a close he adds, ‘When I see Messi – who incidentally is a real football man – he always asks me about the team and I always give him a little seed of information like saying, “Oh, we’re playing in the FA Vase this weekend”, and he is genuinely interested. He’s a great guy.’
Modest Guillem wouldn’t admit it – but many people also think he’s a great guy too.
Guillem’s best of Hitchin
Weather: ‘Hitchin has a kind of micro-climate. It’s always sunny! I did a series of pictures on Twitter in the town with the hashtag #alwayssunnyinHitchin. People still ask me about that now.
People: I love the sense of community. I love being in Market Place.’
Pub: Coopers Arms. ‘A little enclave of calmness. No television (apart from big sporting matches). Not overcrowded. People are nice. Also, The Victoria.’
Coffee shop: Coffee Lab, Sun Street and Café Air in Market Place.
Independent shop: Twisted Fabric.
Indian restaurant: Raj Douth, Hermitage Road.
Walk: Countryside around Hitchin.
Live broadcast spot: The Arcade.
Late night venue: Club 85. ‘With a nod to The Bear Club in Luton.’