x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Guillem Balague gets set to launch his official Lionel Messi biography in Dubai

Si Hawkins speaks to the sports writer Guillem Balague, who launches his Lionel Messi biog in Dubai tomorrow.

The sports writer Guillem Balague, who spent a ‘very intense’ year with Lionel Messi while writing the footballer’s official biography. Courtesy John Quintero
The sports writer Guillem Balague, who spent a ‘very intense’ year with Lionel Messi while writing the footballer’s official biography. Courtesy John Quintero

The busy Spanish writer and broadcaster visits Seville’s rooftop restaurant in Dubai’s Pyramids Wafi tomorrow to promote his epic new book, Messi, the authorised life story of one of the world’s greatest footballers, Lionel Messi. The hefty tome is, he insists, “not a typical biography”, and these launches are far from stuffy literary affairs.

“A typical thing that publishers and bookstores do: you talk to a bunch of people, maybe 70, and you sign the book,” Balague says over the phone, while travelling from Dublin to Belfast as part of this ongoing tour. Having rapidly sold out live events for his previous books, he took a chance and booked much bigger shows to promote this one. Hence Balague is currently talking football with crowds that many rock bands would be proud of.

“Glasgow was amazing, 600 people there, Liverpool was 700 – it’s unbelievable, the interest,” he says. “I’m enjoying it so much. You get to know people’s stories, to see cities. I’m just going to do it all year round.”

The genial journalist, who has written for The National, is well-connected in the football world. Co-hosting this launch will be the former Real Madrid defender Míchel Salgado, who now lives and works in the UAE. Salgado is one of several soccer superstars whom Balague plans to meet in Dubai. “[The former Spanish international striker] Raúl will be around as well,” he says. It’s surprising, then, to discover that his career began away from the game. After university in Barcelona, Balague moved to England to learn the language and became a roving reporter for Spanish media.

“I ended up writing about Prince Charles and Diana, Camilla,” he recalls. “I used to write cinema reviews, about politics, everything. To be a sports journalist, you have to be a [regular] journalist first.”

His career as a football writer began at the 1996 European Championships in England and quickly blossomed. Balague became a prominent media figure and eventually turned to longer-form projects, utilising those contacts to pen impressively revealing books about the Spanish football managers Rafa Benítez and Pep Guardiola. The latter biography, published last year, proved particularly popular. “I think it surprised the publishers, the reception for it,” Balague admits. “They said: ‘What do you want to do next?’ and I was like ‘I want to go to the Caribbean and rest.’”

One name did relight his fire: Messi, because the reclusive Barcelona star is “such a mystery”. That project began in February and the subsequent 600-page book is the result of “a very intense year”. Balague journeyed to Messi’s hometown of Rosario, Argentina, to research not only the player’s roots, but also to analyse football’s importance in Argentinian life. “Football is really integrated into their DNA,” he says. “For a smallish nation, they’re the number-one exporter of players in the world.”

The book’s ominous size is chiefly because of the sheer number of interviewees, most of whom became available because of one unique factor: the Messi family’s approval. “There’s been a lot of books published – according to them – full of lies, and they felt there was a gap for the real story,” he explains. Where people had once been reluctant to talk, now Balague struggled to include everyone. Novel measures were needed.

“There’s a chapter which is a play,” he explains. “I thought, OK, I’m going to put them all around the table, as if in a cafe somewhere in Rosario, and just let them talk. So there’s a bit of creativity in how I put them together.”

Does he enjoy pushing the ­football-book boundaries? “You entertain yourself by doing that kind of thing,” he agrees.

While his career is now fully immersed in the beautiful game, Balague does have one other creative outlet. He recently realised a long-harboured dream, canvassing his huge social-media following to find three singers who would turn lyrics he composed into musical reality.

“One song is almost as I wrote it, but another one, he’s literally destroying it, putting stuff in a completely different order,” laughs the author. “It’s just an unbelievable experience.”

So don’t be surprised if, on the next book tour, he brings along a stack of CDs, too.

• Guillem Balague launches his new book, Messi, at Seville’s in Dubai at 6pm tomorrow. Call 04 324 4777 for more information

artslife@thenational.ae