Juan Mata is far from your average footballer.
In an exclusive interview with BBC Radio 5 Live, Manchester United’s 30-year-old Spain midfielder spoke openly about many things.
He recited poetry, revealed his fascination with psychology and explained his passion for Common Goal – the charity he helped set up that calls on footballers to help “generate social change and improve lives”.
Guillem Balague, host of BBC Radio 5 Live’s Football Daily podcast on Thursdays, covering European football: We’ve spoken about this before, that footballers tend to live in a bubble. So where does your interest in others, in the wider world, come from? What took you out of the bubble?
Juan Mata: I don’t know and I don’t think I am really out of it (laughs). I have my moments – we all have our moments – when we can only focus on what we have to do in that sense. It’s an internal fight you have to have if you have hobbies or interests. You have to be very focused on your priorities and say no to other things.
Right now, I know the most important part of my life is being a professional footballer, and that has demands: taking care of yourself, training well, resting well, being ready for the games, being able to handle the expectations, and performance.
It’s true that football puts you in a very privileged place. I’ve said it’s a bubble – you can call it whatever you want, but it’s not real life.
If we speak about how football has changed me or what it has given me, there are probably many more things than three but there are three very important things especially.
The first is making my family happy. My granddad, my parents, my sister – everyone gets happy when I play a game and when I score. I feel happy for myself of course, but I feel more happy for them.
The second one is having a platform. If I wasn’t a footballer I wouldn’t be speaking to the BBC. It gives you a platform to speak and share your ideas with many millions of people.
And the third one is time. Football has given me time to decide my future and that is something not many people can do.
Economically football helps you a lot. When you finish if you have had a good career, you have time to decide what to do. That is the real privilege of football, because 99% of people don’t have that chance. They have to work because they have a family, they have to pay this – but if you already have that solved then you have the time to put your effort into whatever you like.
I don’t think we should forget that. I think we should all think about how privileged we are. We’re living the dream, not only while playing but probably for the rest of our lives. Let’s think about it and try to take advantage of all this.
GB:It was a logical step then for you to get involved with something that helps others…
JM: Common Goal gives you a different feeling of what being a football player is, a different perspective on the power of football in the world. Football can unite people like nothing else, and it comes with financial benefits, a very big economic force.
We created this movement and we are so happy with how it’s going. In less than two years more than 70 players have joined – many big companies, clubs, federations, all wanting to help others who don’t have the same conditions, to help them to own their future.
But more important than donating is the act of reflection on what every one of us could do to try to make the world a more balanced place. We created this movement, a proven example of how we can do it.
GB:Is the aim to get the whole of football to donate 1% eventually?
JM: That’s the dream: to get 1% of the whole of – let’s start with European football – donated to help social causes. And I think it’s possible because when you really want something, and you get the feeling many people share your idea, you can do it.
Hopefully in a few years we can say we have done that, but when people ask me what is the limit of Common Goal, I honestly don’t know because more powerful than a number or a figure is the idea.
If we can make people think about helping others and having empathy for others, that will be the best possible dream.
GB: You’ve identified before a kind of ‘negative influence’ social media has on football, in that it has made it more superficial. I’ve read you saying that kids sometimes are only interested in having a shirt, not in the actual football, and that it takes something away from the essence of the game.
JM: When I said that I was not generalising – because you can never generalise – but I get this feeling sometimes there is this materialistic way of showing things, a way that is forgetting the essence of football, the purer meaning of the sport.
When I was a kid we used to think about what happened on the pitch – the goals, the crosses, the control. I loved to speak about only what happened on the pitch. The world changes and of course you have to adapt – we communicate differently to how we did 25 years ago – but there is a little bit of a risk, I think.
Many kids now focus on the boots and the shirts and it’s normal, it’s understandable from the way everything is shown. But if you continue that path for many years I think football will lose its essence and that’s not good for anyone. Once that essence is lost, the shirts, the boots, everything will be meaningless. Football will not be football as we know it.
Speaking from inside the game, I think we should try to generate conversations about the football, not about the things that come from outside, like this tweet or this post. No, let’s speak about things that happened in the game that are beautiful to watch – like a control, a pass, a one against two. I love to speak about these things.
GB: What was the last move, or player, that you thought…
JM: The Real Madrid v Barcelona game. I was watching it while chatting with Ander (Herrera) and David (de Gea) on WhatsApp, which is what we normally do.
For example, Benzema. You can have people who like him or not but, from my point of view, the way he plays, the way he controls the ball and makes the right decisions, plays with his back to goal, he is elegant and smart and you can see he understands the game. I love that.
We spoke about how many good players there were in that game. Modric, Busquets, Jordi Alba, Pique, Ramos, Benzema, many others. They all played well and made the game a very high level game. I enjoyed that conversation and I enjoy now telling you this, because for me that is the beauty of football.
GB: Manchester United is the club you’ve been at the longest. Do you know Manchester well now?
JM: I know it well I think, even though the city has changed a lot in the five years since I came here. It’s growing in size, in opportunity, in things to do. I’ve lived here longer than in Valencia or London. I feel at home here.
It’s different to London, where I used to live in Battersea, in front of Stamford Bridge. It was close to the city and I used to go to town a lot. Here I live closer to the training ground. It is a more relaxed, chilled, countryside lifestyle – but I like it also. And when I need to, or I feel like it, I can go to the centre.
Manchester is a very nice city because there are a lot of creative people. I love creative people – musicians, actors, actresses, painters, writers. People who with only the power of their mind can do things that influence many others. I admire that. I admire people who can do things I cannot do. Here, they are everywhere in the town.
You will find a lot of people like that and it’s nice to learn from them. There is a good vibe and, of course, music is a big part of the city. It’s a fun place to live. You can see the love people have for Manchester and how proud they are of being Mancunians.
GB:But the city you identify with the most is…
JM: My first memories are of Oviedo in Asturias, the north of Spain. That’s where I was raised and where I feel most at home. Buena Vista is the neighbourhood where my dad used to live, where my grandmother still lives, and where I used to spend many times in my childhood.
It’s a nice neighbourhood where I had very good times, playing football with my friends in the streets. It didn’t matter that there was no real pitch, there was a road where nobody used to drive and we had four jumpers as goals. Now there is a park there with my name. My grandma is very proud of that.
GB:It sounds like a slow-paced life, and if you come from that kind of life, do you miss it now?
JM: I think we all miss the good old days, the daily routine we had with our friends – in school, after school, during the weekends. When I think about those moments I feel nostalgic and happy about all the memories that come to my mind.
It’s been more difficult in recent years but, especially when I was at Valencia, my friends and I always tried to go somewhere together in the summer. One year Cadiz, one year Greece – a group of six or seven friends who have known each other for 25 years. We are still in daily contact because they are really important people in my life.
GB: If you had to choose one favourite book, what would it be?
JM: The latest ones you’ve read tend to stick most in your memory. I liked Sapiens: A Brief History Of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari.
It’s a book about our time and place on our planet; how humans conquered this world and why we act how we act. I like to try to understand human behaviour. I think it’s very useful.
It’s a very good book to understand the way we are – our fears, nature, instincts and our common sense. I’d definitely recommend it.
GB:What did you learn from it?
JM: There were six different kinds of humans in the world 100,000 years ago and now we are the only ones still here.
Why? The only reason is inside our heads: our ability to think ahead, to plan, to act in groups together, to be filled with conviction, to believe in something that in a sense might not be physical or real, but mythological or religious. Faith. I think football is one of these things nowadays.
For example, two Manchester United fans from different parts of the world can meet in Singapore and they will hug each other and celebrate together. They don’t know each other but they share a common love for something.
That is what makes the world like it is, what makes us humans social animals. Our ability to put ourselves in other situations – empathy. To speak and show your emotion. To try to solve problems by communicating.
It’s a very interesting matter to speak about. For me, it is the most powerful weapon we have, and the mental aspect of sport is something that interests me a lot.
GB: Before we leave books, I know you read poetry. So I’m going to test you with a passage I think you like…
JM: I’m not sure, it’s been a long time…
GB:There is a bluebird in my heart that wants to get out…
JM: That is Charles Bukowski, someone I really like. He wrote with no added words – only the words that are needed, that’s it. And he did it perfectly.
‘There’s a bluebird in my heart that wants to get out, but I’m too clever. I only let him out at night sometimes, when everybody’s asleep.’
GB: Using no extra words – is that something you apply to your own writing in your blog?
JM: I find the blog challenging. Obviously after a defeat it’s difficult to write and you don’t feel very good. You know the fans are not very happy to read what you have to say. They want you to write after winning and not losing.
But it’s something I’ve been doing for many years, in the good and bad moments. I feel like it’s a responsibility to show your face, or show your words – your appreciation for the fans – even after a defeat. That is the reason why I haven’t stopped it.
GB:Do you want to one day write a novel?
JM: Maybe. Again I find it challenging because I think it’s very difficult for a writer to write something that many people like and enjoy, to make them feel something through their words.
To be able to do that you have to be sure of what you’re writing. I need to be sure of what I want to say, and to say it in a way that I want to. That takes time and that takes some doubts, and I doubt a lot.
It would be nice to express all that we have been speaking about in writing. Maybe I’ll put it there and whoever wants to read it reads it, and whoever doesn’t doesn’t. At least I will have told my side and my story.