The Guardian footballer of the year 2017: Juan Mata

The Manchester United midfielders Common Goal project, in which players and directors donate 1% of their wage to charity, stimulates him a worthy recipient

The Guardian Footballer of the Year is an award given to a player who has done something truly remarkable, whether by overcoming adversity, helping others or setting a sporting example by acting with exceptional franknes. The inaugural win was Fabio Pisacane in 2016

Each time you meet Juan Mata it’s a surprise how small he appears in person. You never expect a giant of a human to be only 5ft 7in tall, and to cut such a slight figure or to flash a warm smile, but the Guardian’s Footballer of the Year for 2017 has always made a habit of confounding expectations about himself and the game he loves.

This year Mata has done more than anyone to give fresh faith that professional football is not only built on greed and staggering wages for its prance prima donna. The Manchester United and Spain midfielder, instead, has broken new ground and begun to use football’s power and wealth to assistance ordinary people around the world.

” It’s a very simple notion ,” Mata says with typical understatement as he describes the remarkable Common Goal initiative he helped to launching in August, so that he and a growing number of his colleagues can donate 1% of their wages to global charities.” But some of the best notions are simple ones and, when it comes to football, the power of the game is unbelievable. Anyone who understands football will know why we are so hopeful and ambitious with Common Goal .”

In less than five months Mata has been joined by 35 other football people from 17 countries in donating 1% of their wages to Common Goal. All the money created will be given to football charities where it is needed most- and the project now includes, beyond the players, its first manager, administrator and startup initiative.

The players, of course, are the real drivers of Common Goal and Mata has been joined by high-profile internationals such as Mats Hummels, Giorgio Chiellini, Shinji Kagawa and Kasper Schmeichel- as well as leading girls footballers in Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe.

Quick guide

Common Goal: some of those who have signed up so far

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Mats Hummels

Bayern Munich and Germany defender, left, was first to join initiative. ‘I’m putting the call out to all my fellow footballers, ‘ he said

Alex Morgan

USA World Cup winner, Orlando Pride striker, said she was ‘thrilled’ to sign up next with her international colleague Megan Rapinoe

Megan Rapinoe

Seattle Reign midfielder said: ‘Myself and Alex felt it was important that women’s football was represented from the outset’

Giorgio Chiellini

Juventus and Italy defender contacts by email to join the project. ‘Hello. I’m Giorgio Chiellini, player of Juventus, ‘ it begins

Serge Gnabry

The 22 -year-old, on loan at Hoffenheim from Bayern Munich, becomes the sixth and youngest member of the team

Dennis Aogo

Stuttgart’s former Germany international says he will donate 2 per cent of his wage. ‘I asked myself: “Why merely one per cent? “‘

Alex Brosque

Sydney FC captain, who had a spell with Feyenoord, is the first to sign up from outside Europe and the United States

Julian Nagelsmann

The 30 -year-old Hoffenheim head coach-and-four has become the first manager to sign up to the initiative

Hasan Ali Kaldirim

The Fenerbahce wing-back says he is ‘proud to be the first Turkish player to stimulate the pledgeSSSS

Alfie Mawson

Swansea defender and Bournemouth’s Charlie Daniels become the first British players to sign up

Charlie Daniels

The defender says it ‘seems right that our national athletic devotes something back to societySSSS

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Julian Nagelsmann, the 30 -year-old who has forged a dynamic reputation at Hoffenheim, became the first head coach to join Common Goal in October while Aleksander Ceferin, the Uefa president, also pledged 1% of his salary to the cause. When announcing his backing last month, Ceferin said:” I call upon everyone in the international football community- players, coaches, clubs and leagues- to display they care about social initiatives and donate to causes they believes in .”

Common Goal’s grand aspiration is to reach a position where 1% of football’s entire multibillion dollar industry is donated to charity. It might seem an impossible dream- just as a young boy’s fiction of becoming a top footballer almost always seems unobtainable. But Mata was one of those who fulfilled his footballing dream.

We have met twice this year and, during our first interview, Mata spoke evocatively when recollecting how, having joined Real Oviedo aged 10 in 1998, he was given a previously unimaginable opportunity. Mata sat in a car park in 2003, when he was 14, and watched his father talking to a Real Madrid scout.” My first thought was:’ Wow, my dad is speaking with a guy from Real Madrid Academy! Is this happening ?’ Until that moment I considered myself very far from that. I was in my home town doing good for Real Oviedo and playing with older people but you never realise your level until some of these big clubs speak to your dad.

Chelseas
Juan Mata told his then Chelsea team-mate Didier Drogba to’ maintain believing’ before the Ivorian equalised in the 2012 Champions League final against Bayern. Photograph: Wolfgang Rattay/ Reuters

” You are full of excitement but doubt, too.’ Am I good enough to play there ?’ That was my first believe. I know I’m doing good in Oviedo but if I played against Real Madrid and Barcelona in tournaments I watch them with the famous shirts. They look bigger, taller, quicker and stronger- because of the shirt.

” I can’t hear what my father and the Madrid academy guy are saying but my next thought was:’ Whoa, let’s see what happens. If they give me a chance let’s try my best .’ But it was still a big surprise when my dad told me the news. Real Madrid wanted me to join their academy. It was a big decision to move when I was 15. It’s a key age for a youngster and you’re close to your friends and family. But I moved to Madrid and my family bided at home. It stimulated me matured earlier than normal. That was a very big decision and it changed me in a positive way .”

Life is predicated by the decisions and choices we construct- and, earlier this year, the personal fused with the professional again as Mata reached the landmark moment when he knew he had to try to harness football’s power for the benefit of people less fortunate than him and his contemporaries. The death of his grandfather, who had done so much to nurture his love of football, moved him profoundly. Mata wanted to turn his feeling of loss into one of hope.

” I had been thinking about doing my own foundation to help others ,” Mata says.” But I then met Jurgen Griesbeck[ the founder of streetfootballworld, which now operates Common Goal ]. He’s been working in football for 15 years and he started in Colombia after the death of Andres Escobar because he scored an own aim in the[ 1994] World Cup. We came up with the idea of bringing football together to assist 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 .”

When Common Goal was launched Mata found the right words to explain the pure belief that would drive the project. He began by remembering a lonely moment in the 2012 Champions League final in Munich. Bayern Munich, playing at home, had taken the lead in the 83 rd minute when Thomas Muller’s looping header ricochetted into the Chelsea net.

” A few seconds later ,” Mata remembered,” I was standing in the centre circle of the Allianz Arena, waiting for the Bayern players to stop celebrating the goal they supposed had just won the match. Didier Drogba, my Chelsea team-mate, walked up to me to restart play. Didier never had his head down- never seemed discouraged- but now he did. I couldn’t understand why. We had gone through so much to get to the final. Our director had been sacked a few months before, then we had come from behind to beat Napoli in the round of 16, then we had survived with 10 men at Camp Nou in the semi-finals. And now … it was over?

” I set my hand on Didier’s shoulder and said:’ Look around, Didier. Look where we are. Keep think … just believe .’ For some reason I maintained guessing:’ We are destined to win this thing.’ I’m a pretty quiet person and when Didier insured me encouraging him to keep going, he couldn’t help but smile. He said:’ OK, Juan. Let’s go .'”

Mata would soon whip in the cross that allowed Drogba to equalise- and Chelsea went on to win the Champions League, beating the German club on penalties, with their talisman from the Ivory Coast stimulating history with the final spot-kick.” As we were celebrating, I looked around at my team-mates and find the beauty of football. A keeper from the Czech Republic. A defender from Serbia and the other from Brazil. Midfielders from Ghana, Nigeria, Portugal, Spain and England. And, of course, one incredible striker from Cote d’Ivoire.

” We came from all over the world, from different circumstances and spoke many different languages. Some had grown up during wartime. Some had grown up in poverty. But there “were in”, all standing together in Germany as champs of Europe. The route we had come together from all around the world to work for a common goal was more meaningful to me than the trophy. To me, that is something that can change the world for the better .”

The 29 -year-old has also won the World Cup and Euro 2012, and played for Valencia, Chelsea and Manchester United. Yet if you expend any sustained time with Mata it is obvious how much he considers football as a game that touches him in the same style that moves billions of people with its capacity for pleasure and ache. It also produces suffering hope and pleasure, and so, amid the familiar letdown whenever your team loses, football pulsations with more life than any other sport.

Juan
Juan Mata says’ I have such strong memories from South Africa when we won the World Cup with Spain in 2010.’ Photograph: Alex Livesey/ FIFA via Getty Images

” For me ,” Mata says,” football is what I love to do most. It is also the thing I’m better doing than anything else. But football is more than a game. Common Goal brings together these two levels of how football is understood. We have professional football but we also have a beautiful game, which, wherever you go, can be used as a social tool for change. Football has an unmatchable power.

” I have such strong memories from South Africa when we won the World Cup with Spain in 2010. We assured the passion for video games among kids there and it was the same when I went to Mumbai this year. Everywhere you go children are playing football. Even if there is not much grass you have four sweaters which make the two goals. The children simply play .”

I went to the opening of the photographic exhibition Mata and his girlfriend held at the National Football Museum– and surrounded by photographs they had taken in Mumbai it was heartening to insure a young Indian football team Mata had invited to Manchester. His face was a painting when he listened to the little footballers sing a team sung for him.

” It was a great experience to be in Mumbai. A lot of the kids didn’t know who I was but I loved ensure them play football. I was also emotional when I watched they were trying to teach the children English in the classrooms- and watching people trying to feed their children in a proper way. It was a great visit but it was a big shock of reality in terms of how some people around the world do fight .”

Footballers are often rejected as arrogant or ignorant but Common Goal offer an alternative view.” Sometimes you look at footballers and think they’re selfish or they don’t bring a good image to society ,” Mata admits.” But sometimes people underestimate footballers and their capacity to have a strong sentiment and pity for others. I believe being a professional footballer means you have some responsibility to think of other persons who don’t have the same opportunities. It’s a matter of education- but I am positive the more we talk the more young players will have a perception of how luck we are .”

Football is a game of commotion and glory, of small frustrations and persisting dreamings, and Mata has played long enough at the highest level to appreciate these truths. He was player of the year in successive seasons at Chelsea before being sidelined by the returning administrator, Jose Mourinho, and sold to Manchester United in 2014. In 2016 Mata was tested again when Mourinho was appointed United’s director. Yet there has been no ill-feeling and Mata has become an integral is part of Mourinho’s squad- to the extent that, earlier this season, the manager said:” I need Mata’s brain .”

It is a sentiment most of us understand and appreciate. We need Mata’s intelligence and compassion, his wider vision and social conscience in a fractured world. In his own small and noble way he is making a profound change- which explains why he was such an obvious win of the Guardian’s Footballer of the Year award in 2017.

He looks down at the trophy and murmurs his thanks. But then Mata stresses his typical belief.” I am proud to accept this award on behalf of everyone at Common Goal. This was never going to be about me. It is about Common Goal- and all of us who share the faith that football can induce the world a better place .”

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