Going on his club performances in the blue of Chelsea alone, Juan Mata will be one of Spain’s players to watch at the forthcoming FIFA Confederations Cup Brazil 2013. The versatile attacking midfielder, who recently picked up a UEFA Europa League winner’s medal to go with his UEFA Champions League one from 2011/12, is uniquely talented on the pitch and intriguingly different off it.
A keen reader during away trips, his fondness for biographies and novels helping keep outside pressures at bay, Mata’s thirst for knowledge has also led to him enrolling at university - as well as taking frequent exploratory wanders through the streets of current hometown London. At 25 years of age and arguably at the peak of his powers, the former Valencia and Real Madrid man spoke to FIFA.com about life, his love of the English capital and his objectives for Brazil 2013.
FIFA.com: It’s not long until Spain’s first game at the FIFA Confederations Cup [against Uruguay]. How are you feeling?
Juan Mata: I’m really excited and feeling very up for it. I want to experience another Confederations Cup. I’ve been working very hard all season to help make sure things go well.
Does the fact it’s taking place in South America make it a special challenge, since European players rarely get the chance to compete there?
Yes, because it’ll be my first time in Brazil and we’ll be playing competitive matches in the Americas – which is something we’ve not done before. It’ll also be good to know more about the country that’s hosting the World Cup. We’ll get to see what the stadiums are like, have a taste of the atmosphere – which I’m sure will be great, and also start preparing for next year’s competition.
Is there anything you’re particularly excited about ahead of this new experience?
When you’re going to play in Brazil, the Maracana always comes to mind. It’d be fantastic if we could reach the final there and win it.
Spain have won the last two UEFA EUROs and are the reigning world champions. What kind of behaviour do you see from opponents that suggests a level of respect and awe for La Roja?
The main things are the comments people make before a game and sometimes on the pitch during a match too. Spain are enjoying the greatest period in their footballing history and of course our opponents want to knock us off our perch. But it makes us feel proud when we experience this, that playing against us is seen as special. One of the lads said that a club-mate of his, ahead of a friendly match against their national team, asked him to tell us not to go all-out against them, because we were playing really well.
Why do you think you’re an automatic starter at Chelsea but not yet with La Selección?
I think it’s because with La Selección there are loads of us who are important players at their clubs, but then only 11 can start and so the competition is very fierce. But I’ve already enjoyed experiencing three major tournaments and my only goal is to keep being involved.
Are you still known by the nickname ‘Jonny Kills’ (a literal translation of Juan Mata) in the Chelsea dressing room?
(Laughs) Not so much now, because it was [Daniel] Sturridge who used to call me that and he’s gone to Liverpool. The rest of the lads call me Juan, in Spanish. Well, they try, but there are not many that can pronounce it properly. Nearly all of them say it like the English number ‘one’ – it’s impossible for them to pronounce the ‘jota’ sound!
As a well-known footballer, can you still go about London without hassle?
Yes it’s fine. Now I can tell that more people recognise me, perhaps because it’s my second year here but, for a football player, this city is more relaxed than any other. Firstly because it’s so big and also because loads of people don’t follow football, so you can have a more normal life than you might in Spain.
So, you can still manage to go about unnoticed sometimes, despite your success?
Very often I can. I’ll go down to Soho, which I love, or Camden Town, and nobody will recognise me there. I can go into the centre, walk around, go for a stroll and catch public transport without any hassle. When I go into the centre on the tube, when it’s rush hour and traffic makes driving impossible, sometimes people recognise me and say hello, but they never make me feel uncomfortable. I feel very relaxed and can just go along, chatting with my friends.
Footballers tend to live in the outskirts of cities, whereas you live in the heart of London. Why’s that?
It’s generally those players that have children who live in the suburbs, as everything’s quieter out there. It depends on the stage of career you’re at. I’m still young and in the early years of mine, so I like to get to know the place I’m living: walking around, grabbing a coffee in the city... Things like that.
Which places do you enjoy most?
Something that’s phenomenal about London is that is has a lot of cities within the city, loads of different environments. I really like the Chelsea area, there are a number of good places to buy clothes in Camden, Notting Hill has some very cool and different things... London is cosmopolitan and it’s different to where I’ve been used to living.
Do you act as a tour guide when your family and friends come to visit?
The first year I used to always go with everybody to show them all the typical places, but now I just give them the guidebook and send them off themselves! (Laughs) I prefer trying to discover new places: I really like listening to live music, for example, and also playing table tennis.
Would you describe yourself as having a curious mind?
Yes, I’d maybe say restless too. I’m always keen to learn about the city that surrounds me: where I live, what makes it tick, local customs... It’s something that runs in the family. My sister is always travelling too and ever since we were little we’ve always had an interest in seeing different perspectives on life. I’ve been backpacking with friends, I’ve been to the Greek islands, not long ago I went to the West of the United States... I wanted to see the cities and what they were like.
Did you choose to play in Chelsea so you could live in London?
I made the decision to come here because I wanted to play at a top-level club like Chelsea, one that was in the running for silverware, but it is true that the chance to come to this city did make the decision easier.
Could you imagine playing for a club in a place you didn’t find interesting?
I don’t know. It is true, though, that when you’re happy where you’re living you’re more at ease with everything around you – which helps you train, perform and play well. It’s important that your city can give you the opportunity to unwind the way you want to. Perhaps towards the end of my career I might be able to pick a club purely on where it’s based.
Do you miss Spain?
Sometimes I miss my home, my family, the quality of life in Valencia and having the beach close by. But I’m so happy here. Experiencing something like this – moving countries, learning new things – has helped me to grow, to have other points of view about how to live life and to become more mature.
What’s the best lesson you’ve learned so far from your time in England?
About being brave enough to take this kind of decision. It would have been easier for me to stay in Spain, but I could sense that I needed a stimulus, a change. I’ve learned about the courage needed to take a decision and, when it comes off, it makes you feel really invigorated.
Were you scared?
I was respectful [rather than scared]. I didn’t know how well I’d adapt to English football or to living here, but deep down I believed that things were going to go well. I’m young but at the same time quite mature.
Do you still have a child-like side to your character?
I think that you’ve always got to conserve some of that innocence and enthusiasm that kids have. If you lose that, it’s not a good thing. We footballers have to live with a lot of responsibility from a very young age and that makes you grow up faster than others your age. But there are other times when you can’t be too serious and need to let yourself get carried away. You get those people who have a ‘good-guy face’ but never stop taking the mickey, which is what some say about me. (Laughs) My sister is here in London and we’re always joking around, while I’m the same with my mates when they come over and visit too.
How do you manage to combine your university studies with your football commitments?
It’s difficult but not impossible. I like the world of marketing, publicity and new technology and there’s no reason why playing football can’t be compatible with those things. Since I came to London it’s got a bit trickier, but I’m still enrolled in INEF (Physical Activity and Sport Sciences) and Marketing. I’m in touch with my tutor, although trying to find times to chat that suit us both is difficult. The most important thing in my life right now is my football, but I do expect to finish my degree. I’m not hurrying, but I’m not giving up either.