The Back Page pub in Phibsboro, Dublin was a hive of activity on Wednesday night as fans filed in to catch a glimpse of renowned Spanish journalist Guillem Balague.
The intimate audience was treated to a compelling two-hour talk by a man known for utilising his extensive network to find out about the biggest football stories before they even happen.
In Dublin as part of a promotional tour for his new book ‘Cristiano Ronaldo: The Biography’, Balague regaled attendees with tales of the three-time Ballon D’or winner as well as the ins and outs of the football industry and how he sees the managerial merry-go-round coming into play in the near future.
However, the book in question almost never happened. Balague began the talk by explaining why:
“In November 2014, about a year after my authorised biography on Lionel Messi (Messi, Orion, 2013) was published, The Daily Telegraph decided to print a story from the book about Ronaldo referring to Messi as ‘motherf*cker’.
“I don’t know why they decided to print it then, one year after the book came out but it was during an international break, [when there] is always a lull for football stories.”
“Ronaldo took to Facebook to complain to his 100 million followers and threaten legal action. All hell broke loose,” he went on.
“I had already been to Madeira, Manchester, Lisbon to conduct research for the book. I couldn’t not go ahead with it. Then it hit me. It was two weeks until the voting for the Ballon D’or closed. Ronaldo wanted to give the impression of being a nice guy, in order to gain more votes.
“Eventually I spoke to his agent Jorge Mendes on the phone and we agreed that I could go ahead with the book. But the ‘motherf*cker thing was true. The way Ronaldo walks into a dressing room, chest out, not afraid of anyone. It was a term he used for Messi and anyone he sees speaking to Messi also becomes ‘motherf*ccker’.”
In the prologue to the book, Balague expands on the Ronaldo-Messi relationship:
‘Ronaldo usually compares their relationship with that between the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom. And the Madrid players, with their less than subtle dressing-room sense of humour, have a long list of jokes that include Messi as Ronaldo’s dog or puppet, or kept in a designer handbag belonging to the Portuguese player. And much worse.’
On Ronaldo’s personality traits, Balague provided a depiction contrary to the popular public opinion of the player as a preening, self-serving prima donna:
“Cristiano Ronaldo has many endearing qualities. He is like a kid. When he was young his mother was working, his father often absent. Cristiano has been searching all his life for an identity. This explains a lot about his relationships with Mendes, Sir Alex Ferguson, even Carlo Ancelotti now. He is a kid and you just want to be his dad, like all these men. You want to protect him.
“When he first left Madeira for Lisbon at 12 years old he had a hard time. He would ring his mum all the time. He had a Madeiran accent, which in Portugal is similar to Scouse in that it’s hard to understand! A Madeiran accent implies that you are poor.
“For his mum Dolores, sending him away at that age was not a difficult decision. With two girls and another boy, Cristiano going to Lisbon meant one less mouth to feed.”
Balague also told stories about Ronaldo’s close friend and confidant, super-agent Jorge Mendes.
“Mendes now earns more money than Cristiano. I was invited to the Globe Awards in Dubai a few years ago. It’s put on for Mendes’ players. A ceremony to celebrate the success of the Mendes’ empire.
“Deco won ‘Player of the Decade’. Then Xavi Hernandez won ‘Player of the Last 10 Years’! The same award, just a different name. But the networking is of the highest calibre, as you would expect.”
Balague took a break before coming back to take questions from the audience. What followed was a very revealing take on the current and future situations of many of football’s biggest names.
On Pep Guardiola, Lionel Messi and Manchester City:
“He will meet with the Bayern Munich board. Bayern expect him to leave. His next destination? Manchester United feel they are too late. Chelsea have made the biggest offer but also feel they are too late.
“If he goes to the Premier League, Manchester City expect to get him.
“For me, Manchester City is the best place for him. I know you think Pep would prefer the history and prestige of somewhere else. But Manchester City is the biggest project in the history of football. To go from where they were to where they want to be. It’s an incredible project. And they can do it.
“But they need Messi. And they need Pep.”
On Real Madrid, Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Manchester United:
“Real Madrid are not building a team for Ronaldo.
“For me, he has reached his physical peak.
“He could end up in the States playing in the MLS in three or four years. Before that, I don’t know. It doesn’t make sense for him to go back to Manchester United.
“It would be like fighting with his own shadow. On the other hand, Bale’s agent has made it clear that his client will go to United unless he is made leader of the Madrid team. And president Florentino Pérez has promised just that once Cristiano leaves.
“The plan is to team Bale up with Bayern Munich striker Robert Lewandowski.
“If FIFA’s proposed transfer ban for the club doesn’t come into effect.”
On David De Gea:
“The deal is done. Madrid have promised him. Last summer, they didn’t want to meet the release clause. Manchester United told me it was done.
“They gave me permission to say it. But it will happen.
“His girlfriend wants Madrid. His dad has a fear of flying.
“When he does go to watch his son, he drives from Madrid to Manchester.”
On Chelsea and José Mourinho:
“Paris Saint-Germain want Mourinho and Ronaldo together. But it won’t happen. They won’t work together again.”
On Xabi Alonso and Liverpool:
“Alonso wants to be a manager. He has worked under Mourinho at Real Madrid and now Guardiola at Bayern Munich. He is very intelligent, like a Gary Neville.
“I fully expect him to become manager of Liverpool.”
The Republic of Ireland and Euro 2016:
“You got the group of death, didn’t you? I hope you go and enjoy it!” (laughs)
“Come on, do you think you can win? I think you will do better than four years ago.”
Guillem Balague’s book ‘Cristiano Ronaldo: The Biography’ (Orion, 2015) is out now.
James Fenton, Pundit Arena