Man United midfielder Juan Mata: The power of football can help people
MANCHESTER, England -- There was a moment at the National Football Museum on Thursday evening when Juan Mata was approached by a boy, probably only 11 or 12.
It was not a request for a selfie or an autograph. Only a chat. And for 10 minutes Mata did -- his arms on the youngster's shoulders, crouched down to his level; giving him his undivided attention; just talking. It was not for the benefit of the cameras, or anyone else in the room. No agenda. Just a good bloke being a good bloke: Mata being Mata.
The Manchester United midfielder was in the city centre to launch his Common Goal photography exhibition. He photographed Mumbai along with girlfriend, Evelina, during a trip in the summer and the boy he was talking to was in one or two of the pictures. He was one of a group of children Mata met in India and had flown to Manchester this week. They toured Old Trafford, with Mata as the guide.
He would never blow his own trumpet, but things like this are why Mata got behind Common Goal in the first place, pledging to donate a portion of his salary to charity. Not a PR exercise. No agenda. Just a good bloke using what he has to be a good bloke.
The Spaniard was the first to announce he will give up one percent of what he calls his "obscene" wage. Mats Hummels, Giorgio Chiellini, Serge Gnabry, Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe and Sydney FC captain Alex Brosque have followed. An unnamed English player is set to be unveiled next week.
Still, questions have been raised about why there hasn't been a rush of footballers eager to sign up. Mata, though, is not about to shame anyone. His aim, he says, is to get as much money as possible to places like Mumbai. He thinks everyone chipping into the same pot, all pulling in the same direction, is a good idea. That's all.
"I have to say some of the players have been doing solidarity in their lives, through football, and during their whole careers," he says. "So many guys have foundations, this is a different way of doing it, as a team.
"Globally, it could reach more people, at the end of the day. I try to act in order to follow the way I am. My values, and the way I live."
Another obvious question is why, so far, have no other United players joined him?
"I have to say they were supportive," Mata says. "I need to have more conversations and detail with my teammates and explain what we are doing and why it would be good for them to join. I'm sure after having these conversations, many will understand, and will want to be in.
"This is not about obligating someone to do anything. It's just 'We are doing this if you want to join then better because the more we are the better the help is.'"
Mata's initial announcement came in the same week that Paris Saint-Germain agreed a world-record deal worth £196 million to sign Neymar from Barcelona, paying the Brazilian a reported €600,000 a week after tax. The spotlight on football finances has never been brighter.
"Lately football has a reputation because it is very powerful financially, and somehow, some fans, people can see with reluctance," Mata adds. "So this is not a way to try to change things in that way, but to use the power football has, and what I believe is a good way to help people. I understand some of the criticism but I really want to highlight the positive things about it."
For Mata, visiting places like Mumbai -- and he admitted to being shocked at the conditions in one slum housing 60,000 people -- puts a game even as big as United vs. Liverpool into perspective.
"You know, football becomes really important for you, for us, for everyone, but life is a different thing, so many people don't like football and they live happily, and they don't care what United do, or what Liverpool do," he adds.
"I still get angry when we lose, or when I don't play good, I am angry with myself because I didn't enjoy it or didn't perform the way I should. There are other things in life much more important, and seeing those kids the way they live, and the way that football has changed their life, it gives you, as a professional footballer, a deeper meaning of what your profession is."
Mata's profession takes him to Anfield on Saturday. He has mixed memories of Liverpool games: His first ended in a shambolic 3-0 defeat at Old Trafford under David Moyes in 2014, just months after arriving from Chelsea; a year later he scored both goals in a 2-1 win at Anfield, the second a spectacular acrobatic volley.
"The first game, we lost," he says. "It felt bad, especially as it was the first. Luckily we came back and during my time in Manchester, we won more than we lost against Liverpool.
"Especially that game where I scored two goals at Anfield. The first game was difficult because it was a difficult moment, the six months when I came, David Moyes was here, then Ryan Giggs, it was a difficult moment but we went over it."
It will be Jose Mourinho sat in the dugout this weekend: a manager who has only ever lost one league game at Anfield.
"I can tell you that he [Mourinho] loves these games," Mata says. "We feel it. We feel it from him. 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 special game to play against Liverpool, whether Anfield or Old Trafford. You can feel it in the street, in the media, in the training ground, everyone, from Monday, Mike the chef [says] 'beat them, beat them, beat them.' It's a special game."
Rob is ESPN FC's Manchester United correspondent. Follow him on Twitter @RobDawsonESPN.