Juan Mata: The Interview
The interview (and photos) below is taken from the latest edition of Panenka, an independent Spanish football magazine. The original author, Javier Giraldo, and the team at Panenka have been kind enough to allow us to translate and share the full feature with you. (N.B. The interview was conducted a few weeks ago, hence the questions relating to André Villas-Boas.)
It’s always been said that in England they live football differently. Why?
Here what the people care about is the match, more than the day to day stuff during the week. The fans like to live the match, the hours before and after, as well as during the 90 minutes: if there’s something you can be sure of it’s that they’re going to support you no matter what happens. They don’t tire, they support and support, even if you’re having a game to forget and are losing at home. People don’t care too much what happens in training or at the press conferences, and maybe it’s a cultural thing, or maybe just because of the closer distances, but many people travel to the away games. For the players, the day to day is different too. In the morning we go to Cobham [Chelsea's training complex in south-east London], we have breakfast there, train, and normally have lunch as well. It’s a model that’s starting to happen in Spain, I think Valencia and Barça do something similar already. Cobham is spectacular: 30 football pitches, with very highly prepared facilities. And nobody goes in, it’s impossible to find anyone at the entrance. It’s all designed with the players’ comfort in mind. At first it was weird for me to leave in my car and not have anyone there waiting for photos and autographs.
And the matches? The rhythm, the intensity, is the Premier League really that frenetic?
Yes, it’s a very physical game, faster, more end to end. They [the opposition] create chances, then a minute later your team does. Maybe possession and technique isn’t as valued, that culture of managing the match from midfield doesn’t exist, it’s like possession midfielders aren’t as important, even though we’re starting to notice the influence of the Spanish league. Then there’s the case of the schedules, which I’m still getting used to, it feels strange for me to play at midday, or at 13:45 or 14:30; you don’t know whether to have breakfast or lunch before the match. At first I also noticed that the tackles are harder, the defenders don’t beat about the bush. In my second match, a Sunderland player trod on my back when I was on the floor after a foul and I was shocked [Phil Bardsley was later handed a 4 match ban by the FA], but it’s true that here the referees let the game flow more. There’s a lot of incidents that in Spain would be a clear free kick, and they’re not here.
It also seems like the Premier League knows how to sell itself better then the Spanish league.
Maybe as a concept. And marketing and merchandising. Chelsea, for example, is a very big club, with very advanced marketing politics, with fans in a lot of countries. In Asia, for example, there’s a lot of Chelsea followers because the Premier League is still the most watched league there.
The general impression is that you’ve learnt and adapted very quickly. Have you noticed the change? Is there anything that’s surprised you about Chelsea or England?
Well, I had to go through the typical newbie jokes. On our first trip, during dinner at the hotel, my teammates formed a passageway and I had to go through while they rained slaps down on me. And they made me stand on a chair and sing a song; I didn’t know and nothing came to mind, so I ended up singing the Macarena, haha. Lukaku, by the way, did an impressive rap!
Is it difficult to join a dressing room like Chelsea’s, with heavyweights like Terry and Lampard?
No, because I also had the help of Fernando Torres, who’s always looked out for me, as well as Oriol Romeu, since we arrived. As for the dressing room, it surprised me how close Terry is, on a day to day basis he’s aware of everything, and dedicated special attention to us new arrivals. Lampard is also very close.
Any purely football surprises?
In terms of ability, Josh McEachran grabbed my attention, who’s now on loan at Swansea. A very fine and promising player.
What about the mystique of the English stadiums?
Yes, there’s definitely that. I already knew Old Trafford because I played there with Valencia, and at the beginning of the season I was lucky enough to play at Wembley with Spain. But the most surprising thing is those typical English grounds that don’t have as high a capacity as in Spain, they’re smaller, but very charming. First impressions from the ones I’ve seen, QPR and Newcastle have something special. And of course, Stamford Bridge!
Have you had many problems with the language, understanding the referees, teammates or rivals?
No, not many. When I arrived it wasn’t too difficult to understand if people didn’t speak too quickly. It was harder for me to express myself. With my teammates, everything was fine, but of course if Terry and Lampard start speaking between themselves, it’s complicated, with their thick accents sometimes it’s hard to understand half the conversation. But that’s like if an Englishman goes to Asturias and hears me talk to a friend, no? Also, in the dressing room we have Iván, a physio from Galicia, and the head of the medical team is Paco Biosca. Eva Carneiro, the first team doctor, also speaks Spanish. The boss [Villas-Boas] gives the general instructions in English, but if something needs to be cleared up later he normally talks to me in Spanish. He talks five languages. The club also offers us additional classes.
Villas-Boas isn’t having a very good time. How’s your relationship with him?
Very good. He’s a modern, dynamic manager who tries to make every training session different to the one before. He changes the exercises often and makes sure we don’t train more than two days in a row on the same pitch. He gives importance to those types of details. He’s young, ready and has a lot of personality.
It’s rumoured that he’s had problems with the veterans in the dressing room.
When you have a few bad results, the speculation blows up, but the dressing room is still united and dedicated.
Does the squad have any contact with Roman Abramovich?
Very little. The other day he was watching training, but that’s it.
You still follow the Spanish league very closely, no?
As much as I can. I always watch Valencia, and almost all of the Barcelona and Real Madrid games that are on television too. Really I watch any match I can, if I’m at home. I like to follow it closely, I still like Spanish football very much. It’s evident that Barcelona and Real Madrid are on another level, and are probably the favorites for the Champions League, but Valencia are also having a very good season.
Is living in London as attractive as it seems?
Yes, because it’s like there’s lots of cities within the city. When I got here I was given “Historias de Londres” [by the journalist Enric González], and that was a great guide. There’s lots of interesting areas and still more for me to discover. I like to walk through King’s Road, one of the most famous streets in Chelsea. I’ve experienced the hustle of Oxford Street, and I’ve also been to Camden and Portobello. In Covent Garden I especially like the Seven Dials pillar, it’s like a small oasis in the middle of the city. I also went to the National Gallery recently. It seems like the East End and Brick Lane are fashionable now, or ‘trendy’ like they say here, the bohemian area, with lots of vintage clothes shops and lots of artists, writers, etc. live there. I also like the city of Oxford, I went there with my family and it’s true that you can feel a strong university atmosphere. I don’t normally use a car in London, because you get the impression that the city isn’t made for cars, so I get the tube. At first, when I was looking for an apartment, I wasn’t sure whether to go to the outskirts, near Cobham, or the city… I chose the city. The players that have children normally live on the outskirts, in houses with gardens. I drive to Cobham every day, it’s a half-hour commute, but I’m used to driving on the left hand side now. The worst thing was the roundabouts, but I’ve got it under control now.
What do you make of the famous English food?
Well, I normally eat at Chelsea’s facilities, and we have everything there: pasta, salad, meat, fish. As if I was still in Spain. I do go out for dinner sometimes. In London there’s a huge variety. I like Asian and Italian food, and I’ve just discovered a restaurant, “Ibérica”, with very nice Asturian products, which I’m a fan of. But my grandmother’s fabada [a typical Asturian dish] is still unbeatable!
It seems like the city still isn’t really in the spirit for the Olympics?
It is in places. In Trafalgar Square a clock has been put up counting down the days, and there’s more and more publicity, but it all depends on which areas you go to. I imagine in Stratford [towards the northeast of the city], where the big installations are, there’ll be much more atmosphere. It’s true that up until now I haven’t seen much activity, but I’m sure once the games start, my apartment will be full of friends, haha.
Speaking of the Olympics, will you have to choose between them and the European Championships?
I don’t know, but I’d love to be at both. I wouldn’t mind not having a holiday this year because I’m tremendously excited about both competitions. The Spanish national team is going through a great period, and it’s always a pleasure to be a part of that.
Maybe the Olympics will help ease the economic crisis which is hitting Europe so badly, especially Spain. It’s always been said that footballers live in their own world. Even now?
I follow everything that happens in Spain very closely. I speak to my family and also see lots of things on Twitter, and unfortunately, it’s almost all bad news. I’ve seen the unemployment problems quite closely because I have several friends who have come to London to start a new life here, because they don’t have any opportunities in Spain. They come here to at least learn English, and try to rebuild their lives piece by piece.
The labour reform is, at the moment, the latest big battle [in Spain].
Yes, it looks like it will be cheaper for companies to sack their employees. I notice it especially for people my age, the majority finish their studies but can’t find work. The panorama isn’t very optimistic, to be honest.
Lots of people ask what football has to do with this economic storm, why do we pay so much attention to sport with the way things are?
It’s always been said that football is an escape, and that’s been proved true. In Spain, for example, in the middle of the crisis, everyone was delighted when the team won the European Championships and World Cup. They’re things that make you happy, that make you proud of your country. Football, in many cases, serves that purpose: when you’ve had a bad week at work, you can still get excited about your team, and if they play well and win, at least that can improve your spirits. During hard times, football and sport can represent excitement more then anything else, the capacity to think positively. I think football can also teach very interesting lessons about self improvement, motivation, and finding strength and new ways to overcome obstacles. In my case, football’s always been present because my dad was a player and I’ve been a part of it since I was born.
You still study as well as football. Just in case?
I always knew there was no reason to stop studying, even though I went to Real Madrid when I was just a boy. Now I’m studying INEF [Physical Education] and Marketing via a long distance course with the Camilo José Cela University, in Madrid. I like it, it’s basically a Physical Education course, but with several classes dedicated to sports marketing in the final years. I’m between the third and fourth year and I make sure I find time to study, even though from London it’s a bit more difficult, because the schedule is much more demanding here than in Spain, with more competitions. A tutor is helping me prepare for my exams. Even though it’s a bit harder, I hope to finish the course soon. There’s no reason not to.
How’s your life outside of football and university?
I suppose like any other guy my age. I don’t know, I like football a lot and I like to be up to date with everything that happens in Spain. Every week I check out the Oviedo result, of course. Outside of football, I like Murakami’s books, they have a slightly strange atmosphere, but they draw you in. I’ve also read Paul Auster and Jorge Luis Borges and I liked them. I follow a few TV series’ as well, especially The Sopranos, Mad Men and Californication, but the one I like most is Entourage. I love Johnny Drama and Ari Gold! I listen to all sorts of music, but if I had to say one group, my favorite would be Coldplay.
We’d like to say a huge thank you once again to Javier Giraldo and the rest of the team at Panenka, the credit for this interview is theirs. Gracias cracks!