Juan Mata: Football’s ‘Mr Nice Guy’ on changing people’s lives
After his beloved grandfather’s death, Juan Mata helped to set up Common Goal, a charitable scheme to improve lives through football
Monday, 3.30pm, The Bowdon Hotel, a restaurant in Hale, a Mata favourite
FOURFOURTWO: We’ve never heard of anything like Common Goal, especially within the football world, so why did you want to do it?
JUAN MATA: Well it all began when I first met Jurgen Griesbeck, who’s the CEO of charity streetfootballworld. For 15 years, Jurgen has been using football as a tool to help improve social development around the world. I’d already been thinking of using my privileged position as a professional footballer to help society for two years or more and, initially, I was thinking about setting up my own foundation. But after speaking with Jurgen, I set about working on Common Goal. Giving one per cent of my salary, and encouraging other players to follow suit, seemed the easiest, most direct and transparent way to help. Everything flowed from my desire to help people in the developing world. FFT: Is that something you had always wanted to do? JM: Listen, mate, there’s no doubt that the older you get, the more conscious you get about what’s going on in the world. Football’s a way of life for so many people. I’m well aware of what football has given me and my family. Trying to improve other people’s lives through the sport I love most is something beautiful.
FFT: What role have your family played? Your sister has travelled the world and lives in Iceland…
JM: Paula has this… calling. A vocation for cooperation in society. She is a reference point for me, just like our parents and grandparents in the way they brought us up. I don’t know, in life some things matter more than others. I am part of a society that I know can improve, and I feel football can play a big part in doing that, too.
FFT: Your grandfather Manuel had always been a big reference in your football career…
JM: Absolutely. He was and still is, as I think about him a lot – an inspiration.
FFT: How difficult was it to deal with his death back in February? Is, to some extent, part of the Common Goal project for him?
JM: Yes, there’s a bit of everything in it. He took me to nearly every training session I had as a kid, he came to all my matches and taught me the things you need to do to become a professional footballer. His death was a hammer blow for our family. He didn’t see football as just sport, but as a kind of social union that was capable of bringing people together.
FFT: Could you believe it when the Juventus defender Giorgio Chiellini personally emailed the Common Goal website to offer his support?
JM: Pfff, that was incredible. Jurgen got in touch and said he’d received this email. He said: ‘I don’t know if it is for real or a joke, but tomorrow I’m going to be doing a Facetime with whoever it is to find out.’ We made the call and there was Giorgio. I just couldn’t believe it. He didn’t want any kind of publicity for this, but I thought it was worth showing other footballers how they could go about joining us. I barely knew him – I’d only played against him a couple of times – and I was so proud that someone like that would get in touch in such a direct and personal way.
FFT: In this world of agents, press teams and so on, did it surprise you that something this personal happened?
JM: The truth is that it’s not very common at all. A lot of the players who I’ve spoken to about social causes I already knew. But Giorgio and [Bayern Munich’s] Mats Hummels, who I didn’t know either and was one of the first to sign up, have been provoked by their own social conscience to be part of this. It shows that, despite all stereotypes that exist in football, first and foremost we are all human beings. It’s easy to live in a bubble. This is the world’s top sport – I firmly believe it was necessary for football to play a part in social development.
FFT: Do you now see the world through different eyes, since visiting India this summer?
JM: You see, read or hear in articles or documentaries about the conditions that people are living in – a lack of sanitation, the availability of clean drinking water – but nothing can prepare you for experiencing it first-hand. It’s a life of extremes – extreme poverty next to huge economic opportunity. What struck me most was the spiritual richness that everyone has in India, from the haves to the have-nots. I saw one of the organisations streetfootballworld is supporting. The Oscar Foundation works to bring football to the slums in Mumbai and use sport to educate children living on the street. When you support a project, and expect others to support it too, it’s crucial to experience it yourself. That way, you know where your help is needed most.
FFT: You took a lot of photographs while you were out there. How’s life with…
JM: Photography? [Laughs] Oh, I’m loving it, but it’s just a hobby. My girlfriend and I took so many photographs in Mumbai to create a record of our visit and what the Oscar Foundation is doing. I’ve got no desire to become a professional photographer – it’s just the perfect way to show the world around you.
FFT: Your work has been exhibited at the National Football Museum? JM: Yes. It finished a few days ago and will be moving on to the Leica Store Manchester and Tapeo & Wine restaurant until Christmas time. FFT: You must feel some pride seeing them exhibited… JM: It’s just another way of raising awareness. Around 40,000 people saw the exhibition at the museum, so more people now know about Common Goal. I don’t see my work on display and think: ‘Ooh, look at all these people looking at my photos, they’re great art’. No. I wanted to provide another leg-up for Common Goal. FFT: Do you consider yourself special, or different? An idol, perhaps? JM: For doing the project? FFT: A lot of people look up to you because of it... JM: No. No, no, no. Someone always has to be first. It was important for someone to take the initiative, and it happened to be me. I did it for football, for streetfootballworld, for Common Goal and also for trying to unite people. No vanity, I promise you. FFT: Which is more important, in life or football: the body or the brain? JM: That’s a good question. Your body goes, moves and does things when the mind is good, lucid and has freedom to decide and think. On the pitch you need that mental spark to get ahead. It’s the same away from it, too. What goes on in your head is fundamental. You need that confidence to try things.
FFT: A lot of people say that you’re the nicest man in football. There’s Common Goal, you have given money to Real Oviedo… JM: They’re the team of my city, my heart. FFT: But you still donated the money. Are you football’s Mr Nice Guy? JM: [Laughs] No, no chance! There are plenty out there nicer than me. Look, with Oviedo, the club were in dire financial problems. I grew up in the city, I came through the Oviedo youth team. I helped out because the club would have disappeared if I’d sat back and done nothing and the public would have lost their club. That couldn’t happen and now they’re fighting to get back to La Liga again. FFT: Do you know what you will do after you retire? JM: Not really. If you’d asked me a while ago if I’d become a coach, I’d have said definitely not, but now I’m not so sure. I want to remain involved with Common Goal in some form. It’s part of what completes me. FFT: What’s your earliest football memory? JM: Probably going to one of my father’s training sessions in Salamanca before we moved to Oviedo, where he was a professional. Me and my sister were born nearby in Burgos and were always playing with this enormous blow-up ball around the house – my mum hated that! FFT: We bet she was glad to get you out the house and into a team… JM: Later, in Oviedo, I started playing for my local team, La Fresneda, and then for Juventud Estadio. It was here I learned what it was like to play for a team, in games and what positions to take up. When Real Oviedo signed me up at the age of 12, it was the best thing that had ever happened to me. FFT: What went through your head when you found out Real Madrid were interested a few years later? JM: I was in shock. Playing at the Carlos Tartiere stadium had been the maximum for me. Real Oviedo were the best team in Asturias and all my friends supported them. ‘This is as good as it gets’, I thought. Then Real Madrid and other teams from across the country came in for me. I couldn’t believe it. I’d played against them in tournaments all around Spain and always thought that their players were so much better than me. More handsome. Definitely taller! [Laughs] To pull on that white shirt was fantastic. Moving away from your friends and family at 15 is not easy and it was hard at the beginning, but I knew that moving to Madrid was the best way for me to continue my footballing education. FFT: I lived in Spain for a year. The first month there was the hardest thing I’ve ever done… JM: It made me mature a lot earlier than a normal 15-year-old. Living in digs and having that responsibility to look after yourself, to comply with the rules of an adult world and keep up with your studies, forces you to get to know the sort of person you are. You’re alone with new friends you’ve only just met. It informs and develops your personality at a crucial age. I made friends for life while I was in Madrid – friends who I still speak to regularly. FFT: Why did you go to Valencia in 2007? JM: Well, my Real Madrid contract was up. Valencia called and spoke about the confidence they had in me and that I would be part of the first-team squad. It was a risky decision, but I had four great seasons there. I improved so much at the Mestalla and understood what it was to be a professional, as this was a Champions League dressing room. FFT: So was Chelsea’s – was it destiny to win the Champions League with the Blues in 2012? JM: Without a doubt. I lived and loved every minute at Chelsea. First year: Champions League and FA Cup. Second season: Europa League. I was the player of the year, but that Champions League, wow. We all thought we were out when we lost 3-1 against Napoli in the last 16, but fought back. It was nearly all lost in the Camp Nou when we were losing 2-0 just before half-time. It felt like there was an entire world in front of us to reach the final, but we got there. FFT: What did everyone make of Gary Neville’s ‘orgasmic’ commentary for Fernando Torres’ stoppage-time clincher? It’s fair to say that was played quite a few times in our office... JM: We heard it loads, too. It was a huge goal from Fernando. Barça had every player forward, because if they scored they were through. I genuinely heard the shouts from the crowd. When I heard about Neville later, I knew… he had a great voice. [Laughs] FFT: And what about the final? JM: Well, it was definitely lost when Thomas Muller scored in the 83rd minute! I’ll never forget the sound of the ball as it went in off the crossbar, in Bayern Munich’s own stadium. But I felt that it couldn’t end like this, that we were going to win. Destiny was telling us the way to go for Chelsea’s first, and so far only, Champions League title. FFT: Even when you missed Chelsea’s first penalty in the shootout? JM: I’d miss that penalty – and a thousand more like it – if it meant we’d win that match. FFT: Fair point. JM: But at the time I definitely wasn’t quite so sure we’d win! I thought destiny had escaped me, but Petr Cech saved me.
FFT: After all those brilliant moments, including playing in an FA Cup final, was it hard to leave Stamford Bridge?
JM: Yes. I can’t lie. It was a complicated time, because of the care the club, players and fans had always shown me. I wasn’t playing as much as I was used to and it was the sort of situation I hadn’t experienced before. When you’re happy at a club, it’s hard to take that decision to leave, but I think it was the best solution for all. The club got a good offer from Manchester United and I signed for another fantastic club.
FFT: Everyone spoke about your relationship with Jose Mourinho after that. Then he joins United. What were you thinking?
JM: What was I thinking? Firstly, that I had no kind of personal problem with him, no matter what the press said. And secondly, that I wanted to show what I could bring to the team, to prove myself. That was the important thing, to do your talking on the pitch. It’s a challenge in my career that I’m proud to have confronted head on.
FFT: Did it frustrate you even more that the same stories resurfaced after Mourinho substituted you, having come on as a substitute, in the 2016 Community Shield against Leicester?
JM: Pfff, yeah it did. In that specific moment, for that specific change, you’ve got to know Mourinho to understand his reasons. I’d come on after an hour, we were winning. There were six substitutions allowed and he had one left. He wanted to waste time and break the game up. He’s a pragmatist – he says so himself. So, his thinking is: ‘If they get the ball, they’re going to go long into the box. I’m going to take off the smallest guy’. That’s his reasoning. I understood it, because he’d told me what he was going to do before the change. Later on, because of what happened at Chelsea, the media digs up the past. I was happy because we’d won. His reasons for making the change were what they were, and I wasn’t going to question them. There was, and isn’t, any problem with him. FFT: Which of last season’s three trophies was the most important? JM: Definitely the Europa League, as it was a tournament United had never won. It came immediately after the dreadful terrorist attacks in Manchester and, at least for the tiniest moment, we could make our city’s people that little bit happier. It was a chance for us to return to the Champions League, which is fundamental for this club.
FFT: You regularly go to gigs and socialise around the city. How have the Manchester attacks changed the area?
JM: The reaction of the city was incredible. Manchester came together, regardless of race, religion, politics or football team. Everyone helped anyone in need at that moment. It showed the union and humanity that there is in this great city. It showed that there are far more good people in this world than bad. FFT: That’s certainly the impression we’ve always had… JM: Everyone is very friendly. That day more than any other proved it. FFT: Moving onto this season, describe the understanding you’ve got with Romelu Lukaku.
JM: I’ve known him since we were at Chelsea together, and we both made our debuts in a game against Norwich. A long time has passed since then, but he’s developed so much. He’s a great lad, with a huge heart and I’m so happy he’s with us. He’s great for the dressing room and helps out on the pitch, not just with his goals but a general work ethic.
FFT: And what do you make of his fellow striker, Zlatan Ibrahimovic? JM: You look a bit like him, you know! FFT: We’ll take that... JM: But, Zlatan. Wow. What can you say? He’s such a massive part of football history. He is exactly as he seems. In the dressing room, his sense of humour – the ironic way he talks about himself – is always present, but he’s a winner. Look at the way he has come back from his injury. It takes a certain type of person to do that. When he’s fully fit, he’ll bring a lot to this team. FFT: Is there anything that particularly sticks in your mind? JM: The day he arrived, we were away on pre-season, so he was on his own with the kit men at the training ground. They had never met him before and he’s the sort of guy that garners instant respect because of the way he carries himself [pumps out his chest]. Zlatan apparently looked the kit men up and down and said: ‘I hope you know God has arrived’. The kit men were shaking and didn’t know what to think, then he fell about laughing with them. He always does that. FFT: Apparently, when they were at Milan, Gennaro Gattuso used to throw bottle tops at him. Zlatan said if he didn’t stop he’d put him in the nearest bin. Gattuso didn’t stop… JM: And he put him in the bin? FFT: Absolutely. JM: Yeah, that’s Zlatan! [Laughs] FFT: Let’s talk about Spain. You were a member of the squads that won the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012 but have missed out recently – do you think you will make it to the World Cup? JM: Definitely. I’ve not lost my confidence or desire to go to Russia. I think I’m still the same player that went to, and won, the World Cup and the Euros, except with more experience. We had, at that time, the best generation in Spanish history and I was lucky to be part of that team. Obviously there are some younger players coming through, but I feel like I’m in a perfect moment of my career and I want to go to Russia. I’m confident Julen [Lopetegui, Spain’s head coach] will take me. I want more.
FFT: How does winning the World Cup and Euros compare? JM: The World Cup is incomparable. Spain had already won Euro 2008 to kick off a cycle no one’s ever achieved. Winning the World Cup was indescribable. They were the happiest days of my career. FFT: Including scoring the fourth in the final of Euro 2012? JM: Also incredible. I had only just come on, so to put the icing on the cake of a golden period with a 4-0 win was amazing. FFT: How do you relax away from football? JM: It’s important that you disconnect from football with a social life, because this is a heightened, quicker way to live. I like to travel, spend time with my family, take photos, listen to music, watch films and read. I like Nick Hornby’s books. FFT: What was the last film you saw? JM: A Spanish film last week called 100 Metres. It stars Dani Rovira and is the true story of a guy suffering from multiple sclerosis, who doctors have said won’t be able to walk 100 metres. He ended up finishing an Ironman! It’s an incredible story. FFT: Finally, what does football mean to you? JM: Happiness, enjoyment and a healthy way of life. It’s a way to unite people like nothing I’ve ever seen. Football is more than just winning, losing or even taking part. It’s a fantastic sport that gives people the opportunity to better themselves. It doesn’t matter who you are, what you do or where you’ve come from, anybody can try to be the best – football is passion.
FFT: You’ve probably heard the quote before, but the legendary former Liverpool manager Bill Shankly famously once said that: ‘Football isn’t a matter of life and death, it’s more important than that…’ JM: Haha, yes, I’ve heard that. FFT: Do you agree? It would seem not… JM: No, you’re right. Jorge Valdano [the ex-real Madrid forward who won the 1986 World Cup with Argentina] once said, ‘El fútbol es lo más importante entre las cosas menos importantes’ – Football is the most important of the least important things in the world. From where I’m sitting, there are more important things in the world – family, friends and health – than whether or not you win a game of football. It’s all relative. Look, I’m a professional. This is my life and my passion and my dedication to this sport is total, but there’s more to life than football.
“THERE IS n O PERSO n AL PROBLEM BETWEEN ME A n D MOURI n HO. HE TOOK ME OFF I n THE COMMUNITY SHIELD LAST YEAR BECAUSE HE’S A PRAGMATIST. I U NDERSTOOD HIS DECISIO n”
Right Mata won the Copa del Rey in his first season at Valencia in 2008 after scoring 10 goals for Real Madrid’s reserves (below)
Anti-clockwise from right Mata may have missed in the shootout but still got his hands on the European Cup in 2012; having tasted World Cup glory two years earlier; Juan then added a Europa League winner’s medal to his mantelpiece with Manchester United in May; prior to visiting India as a part of Common Goal