Juan Mata, one of the finest players in the game, has been marginalized at Chelsea. Yes, the world has stopped spinning.
Few have heard of Frank Keating. He was a journalist and broadcaster who covered cricket, rugby, and sometimes boxing, mainly for the Manchester Guardian. Or rather, he used cricket, rugby, and boxing as a means to celebrate life by celebrating the men he watched from his press box or ringside seat. Football held little interest for him, unless Fulham FC were involved, and yet it is of Keating I’m thinking of now as I celebrate a footballer who, as I write this, is an outcast on the club he helped win two European titles in as many seasons.
Keating, while impeccably accurate when quoting the number of wickets taken by such and such a leg-spinner in such and such a season, traded in glory, not arithmetic. To him, resorting to the latter made no more sense than describing a cinematic masterpiece by quoting its end credits in extenso. Keating’s writings are a reminder of how the eye for detail that every sportswriter must possess should not be glued to a microscope. Don’t magnify the magnificent. Praise it. So let us praise Juan Mata for what and who he is, not just the scorer of x goals, purveyor of y assists and collector of z caps.
To a fan, opposition footballers can be broadly divided in four categories:
1) Those who can be ignored because of their mediocrity and will be subjected only to milder forms of abuse, generally related to their playing for the other team; the insults will veer from the general to their particulars only when they are caught by a tabloid in flagrante delicto.
2) Anyone playing for Cardiff City if you’re a Swansea supporter, and reciprocally.
3) Those who, while not very good at football, have, often through acts of violence or perceived treachery, established themselves as villains. Robbie Savage, Vinnie Jones, and Neil Ruddock are sufficiently talented for you to regret that they don’t defend your colors and subsequently become the subject of a hatred fueled by rancor and envy. Roy Keane or Didier Drogba for Arsenal fans, for example.
4) Last—and this is not a large group because of modern football’s drift toward mindless antagonism—footballers who draw respect and affection from all corners. Best and Moore decades ago; closer to our time, Zola, Giggs, Bergkamp, Henry. And today, Juan Mata.
I confess to something more than admiration for the Chelsea playmaker. It is close to love, the kind of love—pure and disincarnate—you sometimes feel for a musician or a poet. Mata ennobles his sport as few others do, and by doing so, he ennobles us too, not that he would ever make such a claim. He is a humble man, the son of a humble family, the son of a humble soil—Asturias, a part of Spain well outside the tourist path, a mining country of spectacular beauty. Those born there retain a sense of belonging, and Mata provided proof of this a little over a year ago, when Real Oviedo, the club where he learned his football as a child, found itself on the brink of extinction. It could be saved only by a miracle.
Their fans came to the rescue. Among them was Mata, as well as his fellow Asturians Michu of Swansea City and Santi Cazorla of Arsenal. Notional shares were issued, at €10 a pop. (Confession: I bought five, prompted by the Guardian’s Spain correspondent Sid Lowe.) No one will say how many of these shares Mata purchased, but it numbered in the thousands. He did that, as he does everything else, discreetly. To him, there was clearly nothing remarkable about giving something back to the family he grew up in. Call that Reasons to Love Juan Mata, chapter one of so many.
He is a craftsman who will never think of himself as the artist.
I have talked to him—properly— only once, when a mutual friend arranged for us to meet in a bar near the flat Mata lives in, bang in the heart of London. A pleasant flat, but nothing flashy. His neighbors are young professionals who appear to earn a decent living in ad agencies, production companies, and the like. Nobody recognized the two-time Chelsea Player of the Year when we walked in and ordered the first of many espressos. Nobody recognizes Mata, another Spanish friend told me; perhaps people cannot quite bring themselves to believe that the small chap on the Tube, that guy with the unkempt beard, sneakers, and a bag slung across his shoulders, really is one of the very best players in the history of Chelsea FC. While most of his teammates have bought mansions next to the team’s training ground, Mata decided he might as well enjoy living in a city that has plenty to offer to the curious. While other players haunt designer shops, he visits the Tate Modern with a few friends. And since driving your car to the Tate—or anywhere else in the capital—is a nightmare, why not use public transport? It makes sense, as does almost everything about Mata … except the fact that José Mourinho thinks Chelsea can dispense with his services.
Most players you talk to for 20 minutes in the room set aside by their press officers avoid eye contact. Mata looks at you and listens, sometimes interrupts a question, and provides answers that do not sound rehearsed or calculated. What he holds back, he does for reasons of courtesy. “When I was a kid at Real Madrid”—he joined La Fabrica, Real’s academy, in 2003—“we, the young guys, used to sit in the gods at the Bernabeu.” he told me. “You know how big the pitch looks from above? Much bigger, full of space. And you start making your own commentary, ‘Give the ball, pass it!’—and Zidane was always doing the right thing, as if he were hanging from the top of the stadium and saw everything. It’s so hard to think ‘from above’ when you’re playing.”
“But you’ve learned to do that, Juan, haven’t you?” I said.
“Oh, I don’t know about that”, he said, and he meant it.
But he has. Not as a Zidane or a Xavi, players he idolizes. There is something wonderfully workmanlike about Juan Mata, despite the flicks, the subtle touches, the caresses of the ball that make you shiver with pleasure. He is a craftsman who will never think of himself as the artist. Efficiency, not effect, is the aim. In that sense, Mata is an anti-Neymar. The team must come first. In that sense, Mata is an anti-Ronaldo. Even his gesturing to referees has a touch of politeness about it.
Still, this is the player Mourinho has referred to as “a top kid,” which doesn’t sound like much of a compliment when applied to a 25-year-old man who has just started his seventh season at the highest level. Mata, to the bewilderment of everyone except his Portuguese manager and the circle of journalists whom he feeds stories in exchange for invulnerability, has found himself confined to episodic appearances with Chelsea.
If one is to believe the noises coming from them, Mata has been deemed surplus to requirements even before the Portuguese’s re-appointment had been officially confirmed by the London club. He was “too slow,” “took too many touches,” played “too laterally,” and faded physically past the hour mark. He “didn’t fit the system,” despite creating more chances and more assists than any of his Chelsea teammates. The weakling who finds it hard to last 90 minutes has also taken part in more games in 2013–14 for club and country—70, including the Confederations Cup—than any other player in the world, scoring 22 goals in the process. Never did he complain about the workload; he seemed to relish it, in fact. Nor has he expressed any frustration at the way he’s being treated now. Dignity comes naturally to him, as naturally as discipline and a willingness to sacrifice himself. And there is that dusting of genius. Those rare qualities make him a man of a bygone age, the embodiment of virtues that pros of former generations aspired to possess.
He has a gift, one that only a fool would refuse.
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