Editor's Note: A reminder to the reader that this piece is complete fiction. It represents only the thoughts, hopes, and general emotions of the writer. Other writers would certainly create a different piece, and Juan himself would most probably have different things to say than the exact content here. Moreover, the publicly unknown facts of his transfer have been filled in, but in no way claims to be the truth of the matter. It is, for all practical purposes, a dream I wish I had.
My father once told me that first impressions aren't everything, but they are enough for most people. The first thing of note in my interactions with Juan Manuel Mata García was his willingness not only to grant me this private interview, but to fly back from Manchester to do so. "I wish I could've done this sooner," his quiet, unassuming voice told me over the phone, "I had many things to say to the fans, and the club. Everything happened very quickly for me, and it was not possible."
His London flat had not yet been packed up and sold, and he graciously invited me to meet him there, so that we could have the discussion in the comfort and privacy of his secure residence. Naturally, the place was impeccably decorated, stylish and modern yet subtle and classy. The gray weather outside made for a dim, somber atmosphere. My host, while kind and hospitable, generally reflected that tone in his words and actions. He moved slowly, not the spark plug that I'd seen in televised-interviews; his bright eyes seemed to have lost some of their light.
With tumultuous emotions frothing within me, I felt hesitant to speak, lest the barely-contained turmoil spill forth unabated. I manage, Where shall we begin? and the diminutive Spaniard's head snapped up. "Chelsea," he says, resolutely, "We start with Chelsea." As had probably been the case his entire life, Juan Mata's calm determination was contagious. The slightest hint of fire in his eyes drives me to collect my notepad and my senses. My anxieties settle into a dull ache in my stomach as I take up my pen and turn my attention to the Blues' former number ten. Chelsea, I echo, and we began.
As had probably been the case his entire life, Juan Mata's calm determination was contagious.
The questions come pouring forth in a mostly manageable deluge after that, but most important was perhaps the first he answered: What happened to bring about your move? I remain taut on the edge of his white leather armchair as he sinks back into his, and painfully begins to relate the entire saga. The resignation is audible in his voice, and his eyes rarely look up from the hardwood floor.
"I was home, actually, that evening... it was Tuesday. That's when I got a call; the transfer manager, Mr. Emenalo, he called me. It was strange, because he does not usually call me. I knew it had to be about a transfer, of course, but we had not talked before about me leaving the club at that time." Juan leans forward, scratching his left elbow with his right hand. "He told me that the club had received a bid from Manchester and asked me if I was happy here in London, and here with Chelsea."
- via www.football-europe.net
For the first time since the interview formally began, the Spaniard's blue eyes meet mine. "It was very difficult to answer that question. I did not want to tell him the truth." He is silent for a while, and I have to prompt him to elaborate. You were unhappy. When did that happen? He smiles weakly. "I'm not so sure I know." His Castile-and-León accent masks some of the apprehension in his voice, but the underlying pain is palpable. "When I signed for Chelsea, I was very happy, very excited to come to the Premier League and to play for a big club. Then in my first year, we won the Champion's League. It was one of the best moments of my life, to be able to lift the trophy that so many great players have lifted."
It was a very special moment for everyone connected to the club, I acknowledge, hoping he'll continue. Again, the blue eyes rose to lock with mine. "It was incredible. And the summer was the European championship with Spain, and I was playing a lot that year." I've always loved how Spaniards bring a vowel to the front of the word Spain, as if with every "eh-Spain," they honor and remember España, the homeland so many feel so connected to that they rarely leave. It strikes me as strange that this particular denizen found a home on a distant shore, but before I can contemplate the consequences of his uniquely adventurous nature, he continues. "Even though the next season with Rafa we struggled, I was able to play a lot and we could still win a trophy at the end of the season. Then it was summer again and we knew of the arrival of José, and there was very much excitement in the club to have him here. As a player, you want to train with the best, so that you can become the best." His own sentence seems to give him pause, and he leans back for a moment, asking for a break from the questions.
Fortunately, I'd anticipated the difficulty in sorting through such deep-rooted and complex emotions, and I've brought a tool that should help to unlock emotions, loosen tongues, and relax the heavy brows that have darkened the room. My secret weapon: a 2007 Rioja Gran Reserva. He seems pleased to be able to get to his feet and set himself to the task of rummaging up a couple of glasses, and we settle back into the armchairs a few minutes later, already feeling buoyed by the injection of liquid courage.
- via static.sportskeeda.com
The question of his happiness still hangs over us, however, and we quickly sink back into the depths of the furniture. The road before us appears bleak and depressing, but our reaching the destination beyond it has already been necessitated. As terrifying as the prospect is, the hour grows late, the sky grows dark, and we must march wearily on- me to my old home and he to his new one, but for now, together to answers and closure. As a starting point, I refer him to the comments made by Mourinho in his most recent press conference.
"Chelsea is a special club... (it) cares with people... (it) is respectful with the players, especially the players who wrote an history in this club, and Juan is one of these. I thought, and I still think, he could be an important player for us. Of course he's a fantastic player, and in spite of not playing a lot with us... he could be a very important player for us"
- Jose Mourinho, Chelsea Press Conference, 24/1/2014
Again, Juan Mata falls silent. This surprises me, with his willingness to have the interview and his reputation as a bit of a chatter-box. One would be remiss to mistake this relentless attacker for a man without patience, but tonight his silence weighs heavy with hesitance. "Chelsea is a special club," he begins slowly, "It is special to me, and to many... the fans, the manager, the players, everyone has always had respect for me and treated me very well. I am not so able to speak as well... in English," he says. His English is better than the vast majority of foreign players I know, but I empathize with his difficulties in self-expression. Perhaps this is why he's agreed to meet with me in particular, I think. You know, if you'd be more comfortable, I say, we could continue in Spanish. He nods gratefully.
(What follows is my attempt to translate the sentiments he then expressed to me. I have tried, to the best of my ability, to preserve the connotative meaning behind his words without forcing the reader to wrestle with semantics.)
"I love Chelsea. As my first big club, it will always hold a special place in my heart. In two and a half years, London became my city and its people became my people. Even if someone supported Arsenal or Tottenham, they always treated me with kindness and respect. I cannot and do not have a single complaint against the Chelsea fans, who have exemplified what it means to embrace a player as a family member. The players were an even closer family. From the very first day, I felt as though they accepted me and wanted me here. More than that, they showed me that they wanted me to thrive. Frank and John could not have been better for supporting us when we struggled with defeat. David Luiz kept everyone smiling, regardless of the cold, regardless of our place in the league table. Fernando helped me to adjust to the league and to London, and now, I think I love both more than he does!" He cracks his first genuine smile at this, but when I cannot bring myself to return it, it fades abruptly from his face.
The manager? It is my turn to be hesitant. Were there problems with Mourinho?
"José is one of the greatest managers in the world, and I learned a lot from him. Every day he showed me a better way to be, as a player, as a professional, and as a human being. He illuminated to me my own failings, my imbalance. In this way, he also started a fire in me. I had played many games in each season for many years, but now I had an even greater hunger to play. Unfortunately, I was adapting to something, while others were merely adjusting something already in place. It was like racing someone with a head start. For this, I do not blame anyone, and I do not think anyone blames me. However, when you cannot beat the winner of the race, maybe next time you do not get to run the race. You train and prepare, but the runners ahead of you are still racing and getting faster and stronger. I could not see a way out, and I could not even see the finish line that I had already crossed first many times in my career."
"I was adapting to something, while others were merely adjusting something already in place. It was like racing someone with a head start."
The words come faster now, a sense of relief at their unburdening apparent in his tone. "So when the call came from Mr. Emenalo, this is what I told him. I did not feel like I was catching up, and I was beginning to wonder if I would ever catch up. I was always an important player to my sides, and maybe José believes what he says, that I could be an important player for Chelsea again, but..." This time, the pause is so long that my ears fill with the noises of the traffic outdoors, the ventilation system, and the neighbors television before he finishes, "I did not believe this."
- via cdn.images.express.co.uk
I sit back, stunned. My glass finds the end table next to me as I find my voice. You lost faith? I think back on the instances that this man before me defied what I thought possible in the game of football. A hundred clever dinks and audacious lobs flash through my mind at once. You didn't believe? "I didn't believe. I don't believe. It is this that I want Chelsea to know, above all. I'm sorry that I could not believe in myself the way that you believed in me. I wish I did. The thought of fading away, contributing only in training terrifies me." His words are shaking within him now, "My fear, and my disbelief are what ultimately make me unhappy. I want to find my faith again, and my courage. I saw a chance to do this and I took it. It meant leaving a city I see as home, fans that I embrace as family, a club that I love as a part of myself, but I truly felt I had to, in order to save myself." And now his blue eyes boil over, and silence returns to the flat on the river Thames.
"My fear, and my disbelief are what ultimately make me unhappy. I want to find my faith again, and my courage."
There and then, my heart broke for him- the little Spanish star who'd fought so hard to try and break through to an impenetrable national side, now shut out of an ever-changing Chelsea side once arranged around the Juan Mata centerpiece. His faith in the powers of Mourinho and co. could not outweigh the doubt in his own abilities, and here was a club offering to build upon the Juan Mata keystone. A lily flower turns its petals to the light, but this one had taken up its roots to make for a less competitive garden. Would that he'd never had the option.
"I apologize," he laments again, "And I want to say one final thing: thank you. To the fans that believed in me, to the players that I shared such special moments with, to the club eternal that will stride forth undeterred to take its place in history with or without me: thank you ever so much for all that you have given me." And with that, the blue man with the blue eyes said his final goodbyes and headed back to red country.
Thank you, Juan. For all of the brilliant performances, for the classy comportment. We're sorry to see you go, and we wish you all the second-best. We hope from time to time you remember us and keep that blue flag flying in your heart.