Sunday 18 February 2018

Special Juan shows there's more to life than football

Manchester United's Juan Mata. Photo: Sportsfile
Manchester United's Juan Mata. Photo: Sportsfile

James Ducker

No one has really been buying into Jose Mourinho's repeated insistence this week that Manchester United's visit to Anfield today is "just another game", and that includes Juan Mata. While many of his United team-mates have been away on international duty, Mata has watched at close quarters as his manager's appetite for the trip to Liverpool has steadily mushroomed over the course of the week.

"I can tell you that he loves these games," the midfielder said. "We feel it from him, all the week with this kind of massive game. I think he told you he really enjoys that pressure, these big moments. Obviously we get ready for each game in a good way, watching videos, and for Liverpool we did as well, but you can feel he really likes these fixtures. It's a part of him."

Mata, himself, is responsible for one of the defining images from modern meetings between English football's two most successful clubs. His acrobatic scissor-kick at Anfield in March 2015 was his second goal that afternoon and proved decisive. There was a lot less inspiration on show when the sides played out a drab stalemate at the ground 12 months ago.

But with the margins already looking like they will be thin in this title race, and with Manchester City so impressive in the way they went to champions Chelsea and won before the international break, Mata hopes United can throw down a marker of their own.

"We want to win this game," the Spaniard said, fixing his inquisitor in the eye. "We don't want to draw. We need to score, and win. It's a special game to play against Liverpool. You can feel it in the street, in the media, in the training ground. Since Monday, from Mike the chef, it has been, 'beat them, beat them, beat them'."

Mata will be as irritable as anyone should United fall short, but for a player who deconstructs the usual stereotypes about self-interested footballers, there is real perspective.

He launched his landmark charitable project, Common Goal, in August and already he is touching lives. On Thursday, after training, Mata gave a personal tour of Old Trafford to a group of severely disadvantaged children from a slum in India's largest city, Mumbai, which he had visited on a humbling 10-day trip with his Swedish girlfriend, Evelina Kamph, an osteopath, during their summer break.

What he witnessed left an indelible impression and has been captured in a series of striking personal images that now form part of a photography exhibition at the National Football Museum in Manchester that Mata and Kamph launched in the company of those kids whose lives he is determined to help transform.

"Football becomes really important for you, for us, for lots of people, but life is a different thing," Mata explained. "So many people don't like football and they live happily. They don't care what United do, or what Liverpool do. I still get angry when we lose, or when I don't play well.

"But there are other things in life which are much more important, and seeing the way those kids live, and the way that football has changed their life, it gives you a deeper meaning of what being a professional footballer is.

"Sometimes, we get into a routine - training, travelling, playing - and you get into a mindset which is all very quick, and you don't have time to step back and have that perspective and think, 'Listen, I am playing for Manchester United, I am very lucky'."

Through Common Goal, which is affiliated to streetfootballworld, Mata is encouraging footballers to pledge 1pc of their salary so that the money raised can support football charities around the world.

Seven players have signed up so far, including Bayern Munich defender Mats Hummels and Juventus centre-half Giorgio Chiellini, and Swansea's Alfie Mawson is expected to become the first English footballer to do so.

Ambition

Mata's ultimate ambition is to reach a position where 1pc of football's entire multi-billion euro industry is donated to charity.

Listening to Mata talk about his experiences of visiting the Ambedkar Nagar slum, whose prime city location means 60,000 people live in constant fear of being driven out to make way for another wave of opulent hotels and homes for the rich, it is hard to believe others will not feel moved to join his cause.

"I would be walking through this maze of narrow streets and there are people who are actually homeless," Mata reflected. "People, kids, lost in the street. These are the sort of things you see in the movies, but when you go there and see them (in reality), it gives you a perspective of the type of lives other people lead in the world."

Mata's warmth and compassion shine through. This is no stunt for the cameras.

"I'd rather do things with passion," he said. "If you do something, do it with passion, or don't do it."

That same passion will be evident at Anfield today. But win, lose or draw, there will be context for Mata.

Telegraph.co.uk

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