Ninety minutes with Juan Mata is a time full of space and light. It’s a little like watching him play football, where his intelligence and vision are obvious, but Mata also arrives at a small hotel in Altrincham with a minimum of fuss. He is alone, without an agent or a sponsor, and interested in a detailed conversation rather than a routine interview with the UK Guardian.
The importance of space becomes even clearer when we turn to Saturday’s visit of Mata and Manchester United to Anfield. Second in the table, just behind Manchester City on goal difference after both clubs have won six and drawn one of their opening seven Premier League games, United face their first real test against a bitter rival in Liverpool. Mata has prospered before at Anfield, most notably when scoring both goals, including an acrobatic volley during a 2-1 defeat of Liverpool in 2015. It was a volatile afternoon marked by Steven Gerrard being sent off for a stamp 38 seconds after coming on as a substitute.
“I love it,” he says with unexpected relish for a slight figure who plays such technical football. “When the game gets crazy, it creates more space. It is a very physical league which is big on set pieces – but that sense of ‘Let’s forget about tactics and just attack’ helps me use that space.
“For me good football is not about how many skills you show or how many players you beat. It’s about making the right decision every time you have the ball. I see players that make 100% right decisions – Iniesta and Xavi – but there are also good English examples. Scholes, Lampard and Gerrard made many more right decisions than wrong decisions. You see so many players with physical qualities. They are quick and strong but they don’t make the right decisions. So for me the most important thing is to do what the game asks from you in the moment. You naturally know what is right which is why, even though you have to think about defensive duties and structure, once you’re on the pitch you have to be free in your mind.”
Such free thinking, and a compassionate ability to understand what footballers can also do off the field, underpins Mata’s landmark project Common Goal, which he launched in August. The Spain international, who has won the World Cup, European Championship and the Champions League, will donate 1% of his salary to Common Goal so that the money he and others raise can support football charities around the globe. Mata’s grand ambition is to reach a position where 1% of football’s entire multibillion dollar industry is donated to charity.
“This is not about me,” Mata stresses. “Someone had to start and I did. But I hope a lot of us will commit fully to the project. The ultimate goal is that everyone related to football, including the media and fans, can help in different ways. The best way to start is with players because we bring greater attention. We are talking about 1% because we need a realistic structure that encourages other people to join. My own 1% doesn’t mean so much but if, one day, we reach 1% of the whole professional football revenue it will be great. And if people are financially not in a good situation they can join by spreading the word.”
If Mata is driven by a communal vision of football helping to transform society, the roots of his commitment are deeply personal. He remembers how the loss of his grandfather eight months ago sparked a desire to try to improve less fortunate lives. “It was a very sad day,” Mata says of his grandfather’s death. “He used to take me to training and watch all my games. Football was his passion and he was very happy he had a grandson that he could live football through. It meant a lot that he came to see the World Cup final and some Champions League finals. Obviously when I play well and win a trophy I feel happy about myself. But I feel even happier for my family because I know how they suffer when things are not going right. They suffer more than me. And they are probably happier than me when things go well.
“The night before he died we played Saint-Étienne and I made the assist for the Mkhitaryan goal that won the game. It was a Thursday and I was hoping to see him after the Capital One Cup final on the Sunday. But he died on Friday so I went to Spain on Saturday and came back for the final. We spoke one last time after Saint-Étienne. He was very weak but he said I made that nice assist. It’s probably the assist I will remember my whole life. He was very important for me also in thinking about football as a powerful tool to make so many people happy.
“I had been thinking about doing my own foundation to help others. But I was also encouraged by my sister. She has a great personality and lives in Iceland now. She’s a traveller, a free soul and I admire her way of living. So my family gave me the right mentality to think about football in a new way. I then met Jürgen Griesbeck [the founder of streetfootballworld, which now runs Common Goal]. He’s been working in football for 15 years and he started in Colombia after the death of Andrés Escobar [who was murdered] because he scored an own goal in the 1994 World Cup. We clicked and came up with the idea of bringing football together to help others. The idea is that it doesn’t have to be voluntary. We aim to have the 1% donation [embedded] within the structure of football.”