With football’s World Cup in Russia starting in just over a week’s time, Northern Ireland football fans are getting the chance to quiz one of the best brains on the game on Thursday afternoon.
And Sky Sports regular Guillem Balague says the Green and White Army will be sadly missed when the tournament kicks off on June 14.
The football journalist and pundit will be at The Black Box as part of the Belfast Book Festival line-up for a lunchtime event (1-2pm) and says he’s looking forward to meeting up the Northern Ireland fans who helped make the European Championships in France two years ago such a colourful occasion:
“Some of the best memories from the Euros two years ago came from the supporters. We had Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and off the pitch, along with Iceland, the tournament belonged to them.
“The vibrancy, attitude, support and friendliness of them all helped create a special atmosphere of fun wherever they went.
“Russia this summer will be poorer without them.”
And Guillem knows what he’s talking about as no-one in the football world has a contacts book quite like him.
Names like Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Pep Guardiola have all been subjects of his books in recent years and Guillem has been given unprecedented access into the lives of the top stars in the football world.
Guillem’s most recent book - Brave New World: Inside Pochettino’s Spurs - saw him granted unprecedented access into Tottenham’s 2016-17 season - but it’s not just local Tottenham fans who’ll have an interested in whet Guillem has to say.
“That book seems to have come along at the right time, with Mauricio Pochettino heavily linked with the Real Madrid job over the past week. I’ve had a busy few days with that one!
“But I’ve been working on updates to the books I’ve written on Messi, Ronaldo and Pep Guardiola,” he told the Belfast Telegraph. “They’re all fascinating characters in their own ways who are continuing to achieve great things in the sport. I want to see what makes them tick, what makes them strive to be the best they possibly can.”
But getting access to the greatest names hasn’t always been plain sailing.
“Pep Guardiola was fantastic. He gave me total freedom. But with Ronaldo, his image is so totally controlled. I was threatened with legal action over a piece I’d written about how he described his greatest rival in the modern game, Lionel Messi.”
And this summer, Guillem is hoping Messi finally cements his place as the greatest player the game has ever seen:
“I know I’m Spanish and they’re my team, but for world football I’d like to see Messi do something special. To me he’s already the best player the world has ever seen, but if he produces something over the next six weeks and lead Argentina to the World Cup it would settle a lot of debates.
“I suspect we’ll have the usual suspects there in the final stages. There are teams with one fantastic individual, like Portugal, but in the end it’s the solid teams like Spain, Germany, Brazil and Argentina that always seem to be at the business end of the tournament. I’m interested to see how Belgium come together. They have some fantastic individuals and if they can pull that all together and work as a team they could be interesting.”
Guillem has been in Belfast several times before, and gained his UEFA B coaching license here, and says he’s looking forward to a little ‘down time’ ahead of a bust summer schedule.
“The World Cup and the multi million pound transfer window will keep me busy, but for a few days I’ll be winding down and I love chatting to football fans. I’m always amazed at the interest in the sport no matter where I go in the world. You can tell the Northern Ireland supporters are some of the most passionate and knowledgeable in the world and it’ll be an interesting afternoon.
“I’m open to questions on anything.”
When it comes to football, everyone has a game they remember above all others, and for Guillem the answer to that was an easy one.
“I was in Istanbul in 2005 for the Champions League Final and to watch Liverpoool come back from 3-0 down against AC Milan to win it was perhaps the most impressive as an unbiased onlooker, but from a purely personal point of view and being Spanish, I never thought I’d see my country win the World Cup in my lifetime.
“Watching that happen in Johannesburg in 2010 has to be my most special moment in football.”
Guillem will be at The Black Box in Belfast on Thursday, June 7 (1-2pm). For ticket information visit www.belfastbookfestival.com