Interview: Guillem Balague on Lionel Messi

Sports Mole talks to journalist Guillem Balague, who has written a book about Barcelona attacker Lionel Messi.

Much has been written and said about Barcelona and Argentina's Lionel Messi, but just how did he come to be considered by many to be the greatest footballer to have ever graced the game?

Having recently written a biography about Messi's former manager Pep Guardiola, journalist Guillem Balague was granted access to the people that know the 26-year-old best. His family, friends and coaches, as well as Guardiola himself have all contributed to Balague's book titled Messi, which is released today.

Sports Mole caught up with Balague to discuss his work, while also finding out where he believes that Messi ranks in the best of all-time debate.

Now that the book is about to hit the shelves, what are your main emotions right at this moment?
"It's a funny situation because up until the moment that you send the manuscript, it is your book. After that, it goes, it isn't yours anymore. There is a bit of relief, some apprehension, but also happiness. The overriding feeling, though, is that I need to recover my friends and my life after a number years of writing basically!"

It wasn't long ago that your Pep Guardiola biography was published. Was there ever any temptation of taking a break before embarking on a new project?
"I had every intention of doing so, but it was one of those where the publisher asked me what I'd like to do next. I wanted to go to a beach, relax, watch football and see my friends, but they asked me about doing another book. It had to be Messi. There is so much history and moments that he has created. There had been false statements about him that had been repeated and so I just started to scratch the surface to get to the bottom of it."

Spanish journalist Guillem Balague poses for a photograph, taken by John Quintero.© John Quintero

Because of their connection, did writing the book about Guardiola help with parts of this one about Messi? Was there any overlap?
"There was a range of things that helped me. I got Pep to analyse the Messi years, which is a little personal triumph of mine. Looking back at that, Pep hasn't done it before and I don't think that he has plans to do it again. He enjoyed my other book [about him] and was willing to help. Secondly, if the hole that you can look through to see Pep's life is small enough, the Messi one is minuscule. It is such an enclosed family. Once I started to try to get inside and get the family to talk, it helped to show what I had done with the Pep book. They looked at it, enjoyed it and were willing to come on board."

There are accounts in the book from a number of famous football faces. It appears that you are allowing them to tell Messi's story. Was that always your intention?
"There probably is quite a bit of that, like in chapter two where his life in Argentina is basically that. There are parts of the analysis, though, that I'm not sure some of those people will be happy with. There is a lot of looking back at that time with Messi through different eyes. They look at him now as Lionel Messi - the best in the world, not necessarily the Lionel Messi as the kid that he was. The legend appears in some of their eyes. There is also a lot of analysis, in what I think is the heart of the book, regarding his relationship with his father. His dad is his manager and that is a very difficult situation. After 20 or so years of working in the football world, I was very aware that there is the football that people see and then there is the parts of football that they don't see. It was fascinating to see some of the sacrifices that Messi had made and that has not really come from anybody, it was just me analysing."

Just how valuable was Guardiola's contribution? After all, he managed Messi to a lot of his success
"The most valuable part is to be able to talk to the people that are closest to Leo to find out what he is like. Honestly, the world that he lives in is very small. Due to previous events, the family don't trust many people. To be able to convince them to let me in a little bit, that is probably the biggest asset. Then of course there are number of people like Sandro Rosell (Barcelona president) adding to it, but Pep does really give it weight. There is a real honesty in the way that Guardiola looks back on his years with him, but again I had to enter a very strange situation between them where football separates people. They will meet up at some point, but right now that separation is hard to understand."

Lionel Messi poses for the cover of Guillem Balague's book 'Messi'.

Is there any pressure on yourself personally when you are writing a book about such a global superstar?
"Obviously I don't have any of the experiences that Messi has had in terms of football, but like him, I'm an immigrant myself. I know what it means to try to develop your own little world wherever you are next and to come to a place where nobody knows you. And how you need to gain everybody's respect. From that respect, if you can understand things better yourself, it helps. The fact that Messi is so consistent in his performance, so hungry and ambitious - they are things that you can relate to in a way because in my own life I try to be my best all of the time. There is that link in there, but then there comes a point where he is on his own at the top, which is also another fascinating angle."

Would you say then that your personal experiences, some of which are similar to Messi's, helped you at times to not only write the book, but also to draw out information from others?
"It helps during some of the conversations. Messi left home at 13 and that makes you look at the world in a different way and appreciate things differently. By the age of 20, you are like a 40-year-old. It really makes you mentally richer in so many ways, but it also makes you tougher. When people are telling you all that, you know what they are talking about, which helped me. As I said, though, there were a lot of things that were so alien to me that I needed the help of sport psychologists and the people close to him to understand all the whys."

There is an extract in the book where you reveal that a director from Como claimed that Messi underwent a trial with them when he was younger, which turned out to be false. Did you find there was a lot of false information provided to you? Maybe some people claiming to know Messi when they actually didn't?
"I did, especially in Argentina and you fall for it until you double check - that's part of the job. I've lived in Liverpool for 10 years and I know John Lennon's cousin and Paul McCartney's best friend - everybody has a link to the people! As I wasn't writing a book, I was happy to go along with these types of things. When I was writing the book about Messi, I had to ask. In Argentina, there were stories about him that had been repeated so much that they became the truth - that is probably why the family wanted to help me, to dispel any myths."

FC Barcelona's Lionel Messi takes a penalty shot against Thailand during their exhibition match with Thailand's national football team on August 6, 2013© Getty Images

One striking aspect is the passion that is held for football in Argentina. Have you experienced other countries like that?
"England is like that, so is Scotland in terms of passion. Italy has passion. What I found different in Argentina was because they started so well as a country, they had the perception that they were one of the top countries in the world. Then they started failing at it, so they put their hopes into football in a way that is so dangerous and violent some times. One thing where they also differ from a lot is the quality in what they are doing at all ages. That is why they have produced three of the top six footballers ever. Through football they see salvation, but they also play it with a lot of quality."

Where does Messi rank for you in the all-time footballers list?
"He is the best ever. It's got to do with the titles and his appearances in the finals - he is always there when it really matters. Mainly, though, it has got to be his consistency. A lot of players have one good year and then six bad months, but he is at the same level and at the top for so long."

What about the World Cup? Does he have to win that with Argentina for everybody to share your viewpoint?
"For everybody to think that he is the best, yes, but not for him to actually be the best. I understand the relevance of the World Cup and so does he and his family. He would win some personal battles if he helped Argentina to win the World Cup. That is the sort of pressure we are all putting him under - 'Sorry Leo, unless you win the World Cup you are not the best.' It isn't helping because it has forced him to go through recuperation far too quickly because there is pressure put into his head."

Barcelona's Lionel Messi celebrates after scoring the his team's second goal against Ajax during their Champions League group match on September 18, 2013© Getty Images

You mentioned recuperation there. After his latest injury, has the penny now dropped with Barcelona? Will they allow him the necessary time and treatment to make a full recovery?
"There was a very deep of analysis of his situation when he was 21 and Guardiola arrived as manager and he has worked on that programme until now. Now they are going back to individualised training. You can't train Xavi in the same way that you train Messi. He is going to have to analyse his body again because at 21 it is not the same as when you hit 26. I think this injury will have woken everybody up."

And what about the Ballon d'Or? A lot of people are talking about it, but where does your vote go?
"Before they reopened or after they reopened it?! They've changed the rules!"

Do you think that FIFA forgot about the World Cup playoffs?
"Yes (laughs). Before they reopened it, yes Franck Ribery had won a lot of titles, but so did Xavi and Andres Iniesta in 2010, as well as the World Cup and Messi still won it. Cristiano Ronaldo has scored a lot of goals, but he hasn't won anything and there weren't many games were he made you think 'wow'. Messi had the Paris Saint-Germain game on one leg - I've never seen anything like it. All that was before they reopened it, though. Now it can be voted on again, you have to include the playoffs (where Ronaldo scored a hat-trick for Portugal)."

What are your plans now? Another book on the horizon?
"I'm definitely going to the beach now!"

'Messi' by Guillem Balague is published by Orion today, price £20/eBook £10.99.

Gerard Pique and Cristiano Ronaldo exchange views during the Copa del Rey semi-final in February 2013.
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