Heart of the Mata: Spanish star enjoys killing time on the King’s Road
Exclusive: Juan Mata tells Pete Jenson how he has thrown himself into London life – from the Tate to Portobello Road – and how it's helped him play his best football
If there is an open-top bus victory parade tomorrow along the King's Road, one player will be able to get dropped off practically at his door. After a fabulous first season at Stamford Bridge, Spanish international Juan Mata has not just taken Chelsea to his heart... he has taken himself into the heart of Chelsea.
"I try to think of it as me being in a city not just to play football but also to live and to enjoy everything about it," he says sat sipping an espresso in a King's Road cafe ahead of tonight's potential leap into immortality.
"I can walk down the street and get to know the city. I can travel on the Underground or on whatever transport I want. Everyone just gets on with their life and I can just be part of that normality." He puts his hood up against the changeable London weather and looks just a like a thousand other foreign twenty-somethings having the time of their lives in a city that, in his words, "offers everything".
As well as the streets around Stamford Bridge, he lists "Soho, the East End, Brick Lane, Spitalfields Market, the South Bank, Notting Hill, Portobello Road and, of course, Camden", as his favourites.
"The Spanish love the vintage clothing markets and the second-hand record shops. I buy records for my uncles who are fans of British music from the seventies. When I tell them I'm here in the King's Road, or in Carnaby Street, they love to hear that – it's that meeting of posh and punk and the Mod connection," he says. To add to the theme, Mata has been nicknamed in the dressing room "Johnny Kills" – making him sound like someone Malcolm McLaren might have managed – but the moniker was given to him by Daniel Sturridge from a literal translation of his name.
It's all a far cry from English players who have ventured abroad only to ringfence themselves in a mansion house in an exclusive suburb and fly in friends and family to relieve the boredom. Or the "little Seville" that Jose Antonio Reyes's family created for him at Cockfosters, north London, to protect him from all traces of the host culture when he was at Arsenal.
Mata, who was studying for a business degree which is now on hold since he moved to London, still eats dinner at nine and watches Spanish satellite television instead of Match of the Day but from going to Michael Jackson The Musical in the West End to visiting the Tate Modern he's loving London, all of which he believes has helped him adapt immediately to his new working environment.
He says: "The two things have run parallel – to score in my first game and make a good confident start, and to feel good in the city and in the club from day one were both important."
What could then easily have derailed such great beginnings was the departure of Andre Villas-Boas, the man who persuaded him not to wait any longer for Barcelona, Arsenal or Liverpool to make their move and to join Chelsea. It was a blow losing his main sponsor but Mata just kept calm and carried on – the team's style changed but his importance to it did not.
"Villas-Boas had an idea of a more European style of football with the team trying to look after the ball and build from the back – but any change is either seen as good or bad depending on the results," he says.
"I'll always be grateful to him. And he did everything he could for things to work out. We trained more or less as we train now, always with the ball, and we prepared the games well but the results did not change.
Robbie [Roberto Di Matteo] came in and the priority became just to win because we were right on the limit. It was a needs-must situation. We had to win any which way and we changed in terms of if there was a long-ball option on then we would take it. We won the first game in the FA Cup with Robbie and then the next and the next and with four or five games won consecutively, something that we had not had before, things changed. It is that confidence that makes you win. The mental side of the game is so important."
Not only were there assurances from the new man that Mata would remain a key player but he was moved to the centre where the previous summer he had led Spain's Under-21s to European Championship success.
He disputes the idea that there is only one way Chelsea can play. "We have played well in a lot of games," he says. "In the Tottenham match for example in the semi-final of the FA Cup we played a great game of football and we have both types of player – we have players who have won lots of things at Chelsea with that high-intensity football and also players who are capable of playing a more elaborate game such as [Frank] Lampard and [Raul] Merieles."
His survival may owe something to the belief that he needs to learn from English football as much as it needs to learn from him. "I still have to adapt more to the English game," he says. "I can keep playing my football but also learn things from the English style." Though he knows it's a style that is changing. "The champions, for example, don't play the typical English way, it's a bit more European with more touches on the ball," he adds, revealing that Manchester City's dramatic last-gasp Premier League win was watched by all the Chelsea players in their dressing room at the end of their final game of the season.
And then there are the other characteristics of English football that he would not want to change for anything. "The organisation of the league is incredible here," he says with reference to La Liga's tendency to announce kick-off times just a fortnight in advance. "And the atmosphere at games is different. You go away and there's an entire end full, and that's your supporters. The traditions like the match-day mascots with the kids coming to the dressing room before the game to have things signed and then coming out on to the pitch – that doesn't happen in Spain."
I ask him if the English sense of fair-play has been exaggerated. Having seen Phil Bardsley's stamp on him in his first full game of the season at Sunderland retrospectively punished he believes not. In Spain, when an incident is missed by the referee it is rarely revisited.
And Mata counts the Premier League's Dennis Bergkamp and Ryan Giggs among his boyhood heroes. "I have swapped shirts with Giggs. I think he is one of the best wingers in Europe over the last 15 years and I would love to play against him at the Olympics," he says.
He also marvels at some of his contemporaries: Wayne Rooney's "ability to be the battering ram No 9 and the intelligent No 10 at the same time". And at team-mate Lampard's "incredible 20 goals-a-season record from midfield", sustained over a decade of excellence.
There is a little spark of each of those players in the 24-year-old who could end the season with five major honours if he adds the European Cup, the European Championship and the Olympics to the FA Cup and the Under-21 European Championship titles already won.
He was talking about winning the European Cup at the start of the season when he went back to Valencia to give a goodbye press conference out of gratitude to the club who fast-tracked him to the first team when Real Madrid were procrastinating over his development.
"I hope we'll meet again in the Champions League final," he told Valencia supporters. Predictably they have struggled without him but Chelsea have reached the final hurdle and if Bayern Munich give Mata as much room as they gave Dortmund's playmaker Shinji Kagawa in last week's German Cup final defeat then he could have a massive part to play in tonight's result.
And regardless of how things turn out this evening, this will probably not be Mata's last shot at the biggest tournament in club football. He is part of Chelsea's future wherever it may take them.
"The Battersea Power Station move would be great," he says bringing things right up to date. "It's a spectacular building – the biggest brick structure in Europe." And before I can ask him how the hell a boy from Burgos growing up in northern Spain knows all that, he goes on: "It's a symbol of London, what with the Pink Floyd album cover and everything. And they're saying that they want to keep the towers there too. That would just be spectacular," he says.
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