Siempre Football

Exclusive: Siempre Football meets… Don Balón

For a long time in Spain there has been one ever-present magazine on the shelves of every newsagents that has always stood above the rest: Don Balón. First published on 7 October 1975, every week they have brought us the latest news, features, and interviews, with the kind of class that you don’t often see in the mainstream newspapers. I’m sure at one time or another everyone has heard of them, whether it’s for their magazine, the recognised Don Balón awards, or for their regular list of the top 100 youngsters in world football, which we’ve all used in the past to sign players on our favourite video games.

However, in the last few weeks the publication has been in major turmoil, due to the arrest of lead editor Rogelio Rengel. He was arrested over financial matters (the exact details haven’t been released, but it’s alleged that he fiddled the books), and between that and the economic crisis in Spain, there is a very real possiblity that this illustrious magazine may well have published its last issue. We were told that an official announcement would be made a few days later, but at the time of writing, no more news had come out.

We got in touch with Toni Casals, director of Don Balón, and on 15 September he took the time to answer a series of questions relating not just to Don Balón itself, but a whole host of other issues within Spanish football. We were delighted to have this opportunity to talk to a true professional, one that spoke his mind independently, and wasn’t afraid to voice his opinions.

First of all, could you tell us any more about the situation at Don Balón at the moment?

“At the moment it’s in the hands of the lawyers, we can’t disgard the possibility of having to close down immediately.”

If worse comes to worst and that does happen, do you and your team have any plans? Is there a possibiity of you creating something independently?

“It could be an option, but at the moment the first step is to resolve the situation for our members of staff which are owed money.”

Don Balón is, and has been for a long time, a great reference for Spanish speaking fans. Do you think there’s a market for a similar publication in English?

“I think the British publication World Soccer does a similar job to Don Balón, except they’re monthly.”

Do you think there’s a market for new independent publications in general?

“Just surviving is very complicated, but if you have a quality product and can make it attractive for readers, you can find a gap in the market, even if for it’s a reduced, but loyal, following.”

Do you think the evolution of online journalism has helped or hindered you? Generally, people are buying less magazines and newspapers, but it also means that people from around the world can follow your work.

“You have to think of Internet as a complement to your work, not a rival. If you’re interested in reading an article, it can be tiring and unattractive to read it online. I don’t think the Internet has substituted the pleasure of reading print. It’s another thing having the option to access that information immediately.”

What do you think of the new publications that have come about via Internet? For example, Panenka or The Blizzard, they don’t have much physical presence in shops, and all their marketing is online. Do you think things like these are killing print, or are they the ones making advances?

“I think the different mediums live alongside each other, like radio and television do. What’s clear is that this situation obliges the press to reinvent itself, the problem is we’re still not quite sure in which direction. On the other hand, the consumer isn’t used to having to pay for content (online) and at the moment the only important source of income is advertising, or having readers subscribe. The costs are extremely reduced, but it remains to be seen whether it’s a viable long term option. It could be an option in the future though.”

What’s your opinion on the big daily publications such as Marca, AS, etc? In the UK for example, the newspapers are expected to be as impartial as possible. Do you think it should be like that in Spain too? Is it more important to publish the facts, or do you think the bias makes it more interesting?

“Reader’s interests have made these newspapers biased (if Real Madrid or Barcelona win they sell more newspapers). In the past they tried to make it look as if this wasn’t the case but that doesn’t happen anymore. In that sense, the promotions that they run (there’s regular promotions in the newspapers where if you collect X amount of coupons you receive a Real Madrid mug, or a watch, or cutlery, etc.), forces them to maintain good relations with those teams.

On the other hand, this type of press can make its readers feel more attached to the clubs in question. But sometimes to know what’s really happening, you have to look elsewhere.

Don Balón filled that neutral hole, and our future is very dark.”

Do you think the newspapers can be accused of inventing things? Mainly so that the story is more interesting, with the objective of selling more copies.

“Invent maybe isn’t the right word. They do manipulate the truth to benefit one club and harm another with certains types of half-truths.”

Would you change anything about these publications? If so, what would you change?

“It’s not my place to give anyone advice. The big ones have their business set up in a way that enables them to turn a profit. They do the maths, and if it’s positive for them, then they carry on. Another situation is ethics in journalism, which is being harmed more and more with the importance on economic power.”

Do you think we’ll see a fairer share of the television money in the near future? Will José María Del Nido’s revolution have any kind of effect, or are Real Madrid and Barcelona too powerful?

“The awful management of this is down to the LFP, who are incapable of representing all of the clubs, by giving in to the powerful few and not doing anything to make it a more even share. LFP should negotiate on behalf of the whole league, and not have clubs do it individually. They would be stronger if this was the case.”

Do you think football is something that should be freely available to the public, one way or another? What do you make of the radio debate at the moment? Do you think it’s fair that LFP is forcing them to pay to broadcast matches live?

“Football is a business. As a fan, I’d like to continue enjoying watching a league and Champions League match every week on terrestial television. But it all depends on the market. Nobody can force them to continue like that if it’s not profitable. On the other hand, the radio situation is another example of LFP’s terrible politics. They can force the radio stations to pay – it’s within their rights – but I don’t think now is the right moment to do so. Instead of extinguishing fires, they’re lighting more.”

The majority of these questions ultimately come down to one subject: money. With many clubs having difficulties paying their players (and many more in danger of disappearing), do you think foreign investment, such as at Málaga and Racing Santander, is a positive?

“There’ll be investors that come with positive ideas, who would like to do things the right way, and there will be others that are only interested in obtaining the most benefit possible by taking advantage of a club’s established name. Either way, with the way they’re set up, clubs aren’t profitable businesses and they’re more interested in personal prestige. This means that when they get bored or fed up, they can leave it in a worse situation then when they took over. The people that really suffer in these situations are that fans that love their club. We’re the only romantics and the ones that are authentically passionate about this sport.”

On a related note, this season there are several big teams that don’t have a shirt sponsor, including Valencia, Atlético, Sevilla and Villarreal. Does this show that in general, excluding the two big teams, the league doesn’t generate much commercial interest?

“I don’t have too much knowledge of the shirt sponsorship of those clubs in concrete. It’s possible that advertisers weren’t willing to pay what the clubs asked. But it’s clear that, taking away Barça and Madrid, the rest don’t have much significance for commercial businesses.”

How could this be solved? This season we’ve seen new schedules so that supporters in other parts of the world can watch our league…

“One way would be for the league to have more possibilities, a fairer competition. I don’t think that just because a club receives more money they’ll be more competitive. For all the money they could be given, if it’s not invested correctly, the results could be disastrous. And there’s lots of examples of that in football.

I think the new schedules are an aberration, especially the matches at 10 o clock at night, which is even worse on Sundays. I even find it easier to understand a match at 12 o’clock (midday) then at 10 o’clock at night. It remains to be seen if the clubs and the television companies benefit from it.”

And finally, we hope to have the pleasure of reading your magazines in the future. Is there any more news about the possibility of releasing Don Balón as a monthly issue?

“As I said, the situation at Don Balón is very difficult, for reasons totally seperate to our readers. Unfortunately, I’m pessimistic. Today, the future of the magazine is up in the air.”

We’d like to say a massive thank you to Toni Casals, and we sincerely hope that Don Balón can overcome their recent troubles, despite how unlikely that looks at the moment. It would be a crying shame for such a historic establishment to suddenly go to the wall like this, and we wish Toni and his staff the best of luck with everything.

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