Footballers get a lot of criticism these days, and often rightly so. Earning unimaginable amounts, and living in their celebrity bubbles, they can seem completely detached from the fans.
However, Juan Mata’s actions last weekend reminded us that there are still some nice guys left in the game. Celebrating after United’s victory against Norwich at Carrow Road, Mata walked over to show his appreciation to the away fans, taking the time to embrace a young disabled fan.
These are the kind of human moments that can make the game so special, and Mata undoubtedly gave that young boy a memory he will cherish for life.
Such actions will be no surprise to anyone who has had the pleasure of encountering Mata before. He is hugely well liked by all at Manchester United. For example, when in the company of non-playing staff, he has been known to take a genuine interest in them, asking about their role in the club and their experiences. It would be easy for a person in Mata’s position to be aloof in such a situation. However, he is a man characterised by a genuine curiosity, modesty and respect for others.
The Spanish international, who will be competing at Euro 2016 in a month’s time, is also incredibly down to earth. He does not partake in the stereotypical Premier League footballer lifestyle. When Mata first moved to Chelsea from Valencia, he eschewed swanky London nightclubs in favour of sightseeing, frequently being seen at the city’s museums:
“Every day off I try to explore a different part of the city… I jump on the Tube or a bus, go for a walk. I’ve visited different museums, art galleries and big important buildings. I saw the Rolling Stones and Coldplay at the O2 [Arena] – I’m getting into English music.”
Not much has changed since the Castilla graduate made his move to Manchester. Speaking to the club website, he revealed his fondness of day trips around the UK:
“Since I came to Manchester, I have been to Hale and Bowdon, obviously, but I have also been to Chester… I try to discover new places around Britain and I think it’s a country that gives you a lot of places to go.”
It would be hard to imagine many other Premier League footballers enjoying a casual picnic in Bowdon.
This level-headed approach extends to Mata’s attitude towards money in the game. In an interview with Spanish television, he was very open in his belief that footballers today earn ‘silly money’ and as a result are completely removed from the fans who come to watch them:
“It’s like we live in a bubble. Compared to the rest of society, we earn a ridiculous amount. It’s unfathomable… compared to 99.9% of Spain and the rest of the world, I earn a silly amount.”
Mata’s comments show a great maturity and a degree of self-awareness that is all too often missing in the current generation of footballers. He acts as an example to the youngsters in Manchester United squad, exuding the values of hard work, frugality, and unpretentiousness.
Men like Mata are a dying breed in football, and the game would be better off if others followed his lead.