Chelsea fans grieve for Juan Mata, their Spanish Zola
Published 26/01/2014 | 11:10
For the many inconsolable Chelsea supporters, Juan Mata was not just an employee of their football club.
Mata was an emblem of how footballers should be, playing with flair and behaving with dignity. There were no tattoos or tantrums with Mata, no bling or sulking. Just goals, assists, trophies, smiles and now memories.
Chelsea fans trust Jose Mourinho’s judgment, and listen intently to all the tactical talk of Oscar’s greater all-round effectiveness, but sadness flows across the stands of Stamford Bridge that Mata has been sold to Manchester United.
He was twice the club’s player of the year, influential in winning the FA Cup, Champions League and Europa League during his 30 months in SW6. He was a role model for younger players, a man with a thirst for knowledge and degree course, a gifted, unostentatious footballer respected by away fans. Juan Mata was Gianfranco Zola with a Spanish passport.
Chelsea fans liked that Mata loved their city, exploring it, marvelling at the Seven Dials pillar on the cusp of Covent Garden, browsing through the markets of Camden and Portobello. He took the Tube around town and a car to Cobham, eventually working out the roundabouts.
Those whose second home is the Matthew Harding Upper and Lower, the Shed and all rows in between will miss the way Mata always wanted to share a goal celebration with them, seeking them out away from home, leaping up and doing that airborne punch as when scoring with a low strike against Tottenham Hotspur. Some already denigrate his name, calling him a traitor, particularly with the pictures of his arriving at United, but the majority simply wish him well and thanks for the memories.
They will miss his professionalism. Mata’s desire to get on the pitch, doing what he loves most, making a ball dance and giving value for his weekly wages, acquired added urgency with the imminent World Cup yet he never complained at being overlooked by Mourinho. In interviews, he carefully avoided any comment that could be interpreted as criticism of the head coach, the boss. Supporters felt for him, holding up placards reading “Jose, Mata belongs on the field, not on the bench”, although they knew Mourinho had won the debate.
Oscar was the Special One’s chosen one, his real “No 10” whatever number Mata wore on his back, playing with such conviction in that central role. Eden Hazard, strong and lightning quick, was even in better form out wide. Willian had gradually absorbed the tactical commands of Mourinho. All three contributed far more defensively than Mata.
For Mourinho, Mata did not press relentlessly or directly enough. He did not tackle like Oscar, who looks frail but piles in for the ball.
“Many are saddened that Jose couldn’t find a role for Juan,” David Johnstone, editor of the fanzine cfcuk, said. “He desperately wanted to stay. But with Eden, Oscar and Willian in such fine form it was almost inevitable he would be the one left in the wilderness.’’
A keen backpacker, this is still not the type of wilderness Mata enjoys. He had to leave. The fee – £37 million – has been questioned in certain quarters, slightly bizarrely as United are obtaining a fabulous footballer and a faultless ambassador for the club.
This is a footballer who speaks frequently of his “duty”, who invariably obliged fans’ requests at Chelsea. “I once asked Juan for one of his match-worn shirts for my godsons,” Johnstone said.
“He happily said ‘yes’ and the next time I saw him after a game at Stamford Bridge, he gave me a shirt with his signature on the number on the back.’’ Mata had not forgotten. “The shirt has pride of place in the two boys’ collection of Chelsea memorabilia.” Many other Chelsea fans will tell similar stories of Mata’s kindness.
Typical Mata. Being polite. Being respectful to others. He knows what it is like to ask for shirts. During his time as a youth player at Real Madrid, Mata was ordered by his sister, an admirer of David Beckham, to ask the Englishman for his shirt. Being a similarly generous character, Beckham duly obliged.
Mata also watched how Xavi, Andrés Iniesta and Xabi Alonso conducted themselves around the Spanish camp, admiring their class as people as well as players.
Their humility also defines Mata. With Thiago Alcantara and Javi Martinez, Mata was the heartbeat of the Spanish Under-21 side that triumphed in the juniors’ 2011 euros. A year earlier, Mata took possession of a World Cup winner’s medal yet he willingly dropped down to the Under-21s, calling it “an important part of my development”. Such a sensible, career-minded stance contrasts with the arrogance of certain young English players.
Players respect Mata. When he faced his old Valencia team-mates in the Champions League in 2011, the midfielder Tino Costa remarked that “the whole squad feel affection for Juan”.
Cobham staged some emotional farewells last week from players who took to Mata the moment he launched himself into the “Macarena” as part of his initiation in 2011. He also gained their respect when recovering determinedly from a brutal introduction to English football, being stamped on by Sunderland’s Phil Bardsley in his second game. Even when Mourinho arrived, and Mata was benched, his popularity in the dressing room never took a back seat.
United have bought a special talent. Analysis of his full seasons at Chelsea show he scored in big moments, in his first season (2011-12) against Bayer Leverkusen, against Arsenal, in the west London derbies against Fulham and Queens Park Rangers, in away games at Napoli and Spurs. He delivered the corner from which Didier Drogba forced extra time in the Champions League final in Munich, although a surprisingly poor kick in the shoot-out was saved by Manuel Neuer.
The following season, 2012-13, Mata continued to score important goals, against Arsenal, at Spurs, against United, at Upton Park, at the Stadium of Light, against Arsenal again, against United again; 13 of his 20 goals were scored away from the Bridge fortress. In the final of the Europa League, Mata curled in the corner from which Branislav Ivanovic scored. As Ivanovic celebrated, kneeling and arms aloft, a beaming Mata ran to embrace him. Few smiled as broadly as Mata.
With dead-ball and moving, Mata is a menace. Although David de Gea pulled off an amazing one-handed save from Mata’s 25-yard free kick at the Bridge in February 2012, United’s keeper will be relieved not to be facing his fellow countryman on match-days again.
Mata sent an unstoppable volley from an impossibly tight angle past De Gea (in that 3-3 Bridge thriller in February 2012) and also succeeded with a curling free kick (in a 3-2 defeat eight months later). All of these strikes were left-footed, but he has worked on his right as Arsenal’s Lukasz Fabianski discovered to his cost last October.
Mata’s anticipation and acceleration can give him a start on markers, beating William Gallas to score at Spurs in October 2012, a two-goal display dubbed the Juan Mata Show. Throughout his time at Chelsea, the bearded wonder provided assist after assist, including a perfectly-judged pass to send Hazard through against Norwich City and a cross to Fernando Torres against Rubin Kazan. His Premier League record to date shows 27 assists and 18 goals from 82 games. The numbers highlight his class as a player.
The last word on Mata has to go to a Chelsea fan. “Juan was one of the nicest amongst a bunch of Chelsea footballers who are, on the whole, very nice guys,” Johnstone said. “He was articulate, intelligent and thoughtful. He always had time for those who followed Chelsea. Over the years, we’ve seen many of our idols leave Stamford Bridge for pastures new. But Juan is one of only a few who’ve departed leaving us with a feeling of despair and thoughts of ‘what might have been’ had he stayed.’’