Note: This interview was conducted by Mario Magro Sánchez for VAVEL Spain and was translated into English for VAVEL UK. The original interview in Spanish can be found here.
Minutes before the filming of the special program “Presentation of the 2013/2014 Football Season” for Canal+ on the improvised set of 40 Café, situated in Madrid’s Gran Vía, Julio Maldonado Maldini happily sat with VAVEL to chat about the sport that is his passion, about journalism and all that the job concerns.
His curiosity to learn more about the world of football and his desire to investigate has made him a model of international journalism in the Spanish language. An honor he recognizes with honesty and humility, and endures daily with great pressure. Maldini maintains an appetite for discovering new stories every day that involve football, an appetite which drives him to continue living his dream: "That what I am doing never ends."
Question: When did you realize that you had moved on from being an anonymous follower of international football to a recognized guru and icon of knowledge regarding world football?
Answer: I began to realize halfway through the 90s. For example, in a game in Zaragoza, I met Gustavo López - now working for Canal+ - because he recognized me first as a journalist. I began to be recognized more in the country, most of all for being on television. Then during the World Cup in 98 that I did with Cadena SER and the open broadcast television lead to more recognition. When Canal+ started, many of its broadcasts were open transmission, and this made a difference. Add to that the 2006 World Cup, Euro 2008, 2010 World Cup, and Euro 2012, all of which were open broadcasts.
Q: How have you dealt with being labeled as one of the wisest people in world football?
A: I carry it with a lot of pressure. The more football I look, the more I realize what I’m not seeing, that “all I know is that I know nothing”. There isn’t enough time to look everything. A few days ago I tweeted 3 or 4 keys to the international matchday relating to the games I had seen. And people began to ask me: “What did you think of Ajax? And the Monaco game? And Shakhtar?”. And I answered them with another tweet: “I understand that you are asking me about many different games but it is impossible for me to look them all”.
"In the beginning of the 1980s, looking international football in Spain was practically impossible, and I was curious to learn more"
Q: Why did you specialize in international football? What motivated you to “reject” Spanish football?
A: There was a moment in the beginning of the 80s when in Spain, looking international football was practically impossible, and I was curious to learn more. This caused me to investigate more about that football, not to specialize because I for example greatly enjoy looking a Betis-Valencia, a Villarreal-Real Madrid or a Barça-Sevilla. I enjoy looking any of those games more than a Premier League match between mid-table teams. My situation is like that of a lead doctor. I can’t specialize in looking 5 games of the Polish League each week because it would be a waste of time to leave aside football of the highest level which impacts the most people. To do that would be a lack of responsibility on my part with my work.
Q: For you, “Fiebre Maldini (Maldini Fever)” What does it mean? It is the program that you always wanted to make?
A: It is the program which I most enjoy making and which captures my personality. It’s the program that I would like to look as a fan, but as I cannot look it if it is not made, I will never be able to sit in front of the television to see it. I love to look matches above all and occasionally I enjoy looking a good game of the Spain Sub-21 more than the senior squad because I discover three interesting players that in the future could become world class, and this reinforces my work.
Q: Has there ever been a time where you didn’t know the answer to a question about a specific player, club, national team…?
A: Fortunately, many many times. I think you have to be honest and when you don’t know something, say it. It’s the same when you make a mistake; knowing to recognize your errors. For example, a while ago Sixto played a joke on me in a game which we were covering: Southampton-West Ham. The West Ham goalkeeper, Jaaskelainen, made two fantastic saves and I commented that he had retired from the Finnish national team and that Maemba, the current first choice keeper, was not at his level. After this comment, Sixto said to me: “And what do you think of… -he said the name of Finnish basketball player-?” So, in that moment I could have said: “I think he’s excellent”, but I would have made that up, so I said that I didn’t have any idea about him. That’s when Sixto told me that he had played a joke on me using the name of a player from the Finland national basketball team.
Q: What stories have you kept with you throughout your career as a journalist? What has been that special moment stored in your memory that you will never forget?
A: Two occasions come to mind. One of those was the World Cup in 2006 in Germany which I commentated with Maradona, my football idol. I grew up in the “Maradona era”, I fell in love with his football in the 80s, the peak of his powers. You are with the one that you have grown up looking. And during the first game of the tournament, Germany-Costa Rica (4-2) in Munich, there was a moment where I began to talk about possible tactical changes that the Costa Rica coach could make - I had previously looked this team play many times. And Maradona began to publicly praise me in a game that was being looked by millions of people, which for me was tremendous.
"Few are the privileged that have covered the three consecutive finals that Spain has won on television: Carlos Martínez, Juanma Castaño, and myself"
I also remember that the next day there were various editorials about this in the Spanish press, for example one in ABC. And the other memory is that of having the privilege of calling on open television the three consecutive finals won by Spain - Euro 2008, World Cup 2010, Euro 2012. It was a privilege because there is only one channel that broadcasts these games and television is the form of media with the most following and impact, and I was lucky that the channel which I worked for was the one broadcasting the games. There are three of us who have had the privilege of covering the three consecutive finals: Carlos Martínez (narrator), Juanma Castaño (on-field reporter), and myself.
Q: The comparisons between Messi and Maradona are frequent, but do you think that Messi would have won the Scudetto with Napoli and the World Cup with Argentina, both teams of average quality in that time period, the 80s?
A: This Messi in that Napoli would probably have also made them champions; he has that game-changing factor that Maradona also had. However, the effect that Maradona had on the collective play of Argentina is greater than that which Messi has on the play of Barcelona. But sincerely, I do not think that Messi would have won the 1986 World Cup like Maradona did.
Q: What is your opinion on the huge sums paid for players like Bale and Neymar?
A: I think not only in football, but also with paintings, antiques, etc., things are worth what people are willing to pay for them. I don’t criticize anything about purchases made by specific clubs. People make a big fuss about this in football but there are other sports where it also happens, like Formula 1 and the NBA, or in other public spectacles like the cinema. The reality is that the vast majority of players earn money to live - I am talking about teams in Segunda, Segunda B (lower divisions)... Another thing entirely is that over time that money has not been invested properly.
Q: Do you think they truly are worth that price or are players treated as a “product”?
A: In the end they are certainly products of marketing and a product of audiovisual exploitation. There are few spectacles like football. And if the television stations pay so much money for the Champions League or for the different domestic leagues it is because there are these types of players. If suddenly all the great players went to play in Arab leagues, the Champions League would be worth half of what it’s worth now.
"I think that Messi, with that same Argentina team, would not have won the 1986 World Cup like Maradona did"
Q: When you hear the phrase “the Liga BBVA is the best league in the world”, what is the first thing that comes to mind. To what do you think is referred to with that sentence?
A: I think it’s true despite the fact that economically many teams are struggling and there are players who have to move abroad. I was talking with Manu Sarabia about the case of Valencia. They sold Soldado and now have Postiga, a forward from a team that last year was relegated to the second division. I think Spain is where the game is played the best, in terms of the average quality of play. You see Betis play, or even recently promoted Villarreal and you realize that in Spain the teams play like in no other place. On the other hand, you see a mid-table game in the Premier League and it is clearly different. Another thing is the excitement that surrounds the game, how it is sold, full stadiums… but speaking about just football, Spain is where it is played the best. And this, I think it has a lot to do with the Barcelona academy and the Spanish national team. More and more the academies are inclined to teach the youth to play with the ball. The greatest entertainment comes from teams that don’t play overly physical, with hard tackles and bad fouls.
Q: Do you think there is a big economic imbalance in the Spanish league? Does this not make it less attractive than the Premier League?
A: Yes, it exists and it makes it less attractive in regards to teams that can make things difficult for Madrid or Barça. Although the other day Madrid drew with Villarreal and Barcelona won on a last second miracle against Sevilla. But I insist that the Liga BBVA is not just looking Madrid or Barça but rather looking a different category of teams. There are very interesting players, for example Bruno (of Villarreal). The game he had in the Madrigal against Real Madrid was spectacular. He could be a starter at Manchester United, at Inter, at many great teams in Europe despite being a player on a recently promoted team. Not that this is a common case but I definitely think that there is great quality on average in Spain, more than in Germany, England, or Italy.
Q: Would the possibility of an equally shared television deal like the one in place in the Premier League fit in Spain?
A: This deserves a much longer, more detailed analysis. Our culture is very different from the English. Here it’s been shown that television audiences consume Madrid and Barcelona, and the rest are significantly behind, this is the reality. In England there is a much greater television audience for the mid-table teams than there is here. As such, the big teams think that the bigger portions of the pie must be for them and they do have an argument. But really it seems difficult to me that Spain will come to a more equal balance, whether or not it can be done, which would be ideal.
Q: Iván Castelló, one of the cast members of Fiebre Maldini, is considered an “eternal lover of non-modern football”. Which type of football do you prefer?
A: I understand Iván. He became passionate about football in a certain era, but now we are professionals in this era, and we must see it from another point of view, it is inevitable. But I greatly enjoy looking today’s Barça or the Bayern from last season. I think football evolves for good and you have to contextualize everything in its time period. Therefore on Fiebre Maldini we like to discuss the football of the past and circulate it in order to understand football today; it is history. For example: to understand the current Spanish national team, to me it is important to see Del Bosque play.
Q: Do you think in Spain we look sports programs that are comparable to the tabloids?
A: Yes, it is another product entirely. I respect it.
Q: Do you look them?
A: No, I don’t look them to be honest. It is not a product that attracts me to look although I understand that there are people who look it. The day has 24 hours and if you look these types of programs you surely would not be able to look all the matches, which is what really interests me most.
Q: They are programs totally different to Fiebre Maldini...
"The Barcelona academy and the Spanish national team have had a great influence on the current level of football in Spain"
A: Yes, they are. They also deal with football, it is another way to look it surely, directed at the masses. I know many people that work in these programs, some are friends of mine, but they aren’t programs that I look.
Q: What do you think these types of television programs contribute to journalism?
A: They contribute passion, football is passion, and it’s not only the hardcore fans that know every team and their tactics by heart. But it is always a passion well worn, within limits. It seems to me that it’s a part of football that should not be abandoned. I’ve always thought that controversy is important in football. For example: the other day [Juan] Cala’s goal (for Sevilla), to me it was not a foul, and I think it is good to talk about it. Debating on whether something was a penalty or not, it is good to discuss it the same day but not four days later when they are now playing a match in Champions League, or three months later, continuing to bring up the same incident. I think there are great journalists on one side, but on the other, I think these types of programs are bringing to light the “scarf journalists” (journalists who support a particular team). It’s another side of this business, we say.
Q: These types of journalists.. do they dignify the profession?
A: They are considered biased journalists. Roncero says he supports Real Madrid, and he lives that way, he recognizes it and that is that. I think I am not one to say whether they dignify the profession or not. I like another type of journalism. However, it seems to me that a person like Tomás Roncero that is capable of mobilizing the masses as he is, with more than 300,000 Twitter followers, has its merits.
Q: How would you describe the state of sports journalism currently?
A: It is complicated right now because the crisis is leaving many journalists without work and because many of them would be very prepared to occupy positions where others already are. I think people are inclined to talk only about the dark side - like the programs mentioned before - rather than speak about the good programs that are made.
Q: Do you think then that they discuss these types of programs more than trying to fix the situation?
A: In SER or Canal+ for example, we do broadcasts of the highest quality. Perhaps this good work compensates for the rest. They say that the level of Spanish journalism is low but I don’t agree, although there are certain people who corroborate that viewpoint.
Q: Can you imagine your life if you were not involved with journalism? What does your job mean to you?
A: My job is my life, it’s my passion. I consider it a true privilege although I have also worked to achieve it. I am doing and living that which I enjoy most. I am connected with people in my profession and in the world of football, which is what inspires me. I have friends right now that I would have given an arm to meet, before I dedicated myself to this job. I am a friend of footballers that I admired when I was little.
Q: And the daily grind, how do you deal with it?
"I like to discuss and promote the football of the past in order to understand football today. To understand the Spanish national team currently, I think it is very important to see Del Bosque play"
A: It is difficult because I work in many different forms of media, I have a lot of stress. People only see the good part but I there is a lot of suffering that is unseen, of little to no sleep, of looking many games and dedicating less time to my family than they truly deserve. They on one hand understand it but they are also pulling the strings toward their side. And there are bad days when you need to disconnect. My costless time and the time that I spend with my family is on Friday afternoon, when there aren’t Champions League draws that would prevent me. I consider myself a football addict and when I go on vacation with my family, there are also games to be looked.
Q: Do you think it is necessary to study the career of journalism to become a good journalist?
A: I don’t think it’s essential. Studying journalism gives you a general understanding and a title, which is important. But journalism... it raises you, you are born with it. In the course of study they don’t teach you how to make a program like Fiebre Maldini. To feel the sensation of taking a shower in the morning while knowing what you want to do the next week. Neither do they teach you how to develop contacts, to meet them, to know when to take action or to wait for the ideal moment to report something. I think the course of study helps you, but it is not indispensable.
Personality test: Julio Maldonado “Maldini” - @maldinisport
What makes you happy?
My family and football
Your greatest virtue
Your worst defect
It is very difficult for me to disconnect
Your worst fear
That football comes to an end
What quality do you value most in a person?
Honesty and sincerity
Caldero Murciano (a dish of rice and fish typical of the region of Murcia). I have a house there and I love it, although I am a Madrileño.
Rum with lemon
“Sucedió en Suiza” (It happened in Switzerland), by Antonio Valencia. It was the first football book I read in my life, about the 1954 World Cup.
“Cinema Paradiso”. It is a movie that delves into something that touches me deeply and it is a memory from my childhood. It moves me.
“Rock around the clock”, by Bill Haley. A song from the 50s that my father liked a lot.
Football, of course.
A football stadium
The Allianz Arena, because that was where I lived the story with Maradona during the 2006 World Cup.
A footballer to remember
A footballer to forget
Centofanti, a former Inter Milan player
A place to live
A place to visit
Istanbul. To me it is a city that has everything. Between two continents and a great football city.
That what I am doing never comes to an end.
Photographer: Daniel Mullor Cabrera (VAVEL.com)