“Yeah. But, there were other effects. The serum was not ready. But more important, the man. The serum amplifies everything that is inside. So, good becomes great. Bad becomes worse. This is why you were chosen. Because a strong man, who has known power all his life, will lose respect for that power. But a weak man knows the value of strength, and knows compassion. Whatever happens tomorrow, you must promise me one thing. That you will stay who you are. Not a perfect soldier, but a good man.”
– Captain America: The First Avenger.
Integrity is hard to find these days. Whenever you go, whether it’s in social media or in your everyday life, we are constantly bombarded with examples of people not staying true to their values or surrendering to their worst instincts. Showing the worst side of themselves in the face of adversity. But there is a unique greatness in staying kind in the moments of trouble and never forgetting who you are in the process.
That’s the career of Juan Mata at Manchester United.
Everybody knows who Mata is as a player: extremely gifted in the technical department, superb passer, a very decent eye for goal and an overall magician who has left a lot of good memories at United over the years. The goals in big games against City, the goal to level the score in the FA Cup final in 2016, Juanfield, even stepping up in his latter days when he was a constant presence on the bench… there was all that and a lot more than I’m sure both you and I remember fondly.
But in the end, it is Mata’s human nature, his decency and his kindness what makes his departure so sad. Not because it wasn’t necessary, but rather because we know we are losing a great man.
The Spaniard arrived in January of 2014 as a desperate signing by United to aid struggling manager David Moyes at the time and, even though he was pushed out of Chelsea by then-manager Jose Mourinho, the reality was that the Red Devils had signed a very talented midfielder that could offer a lot of good things and had shown top notch quality at Stamford Bridge during two seasons between 2011 and 2013. But what did United do in all the coming years? Make him a complement or rotational option rather than giving him a lot of spotlight so he could deliver to his maximum potential.
Pushed out to the right by multiple managers and constantly playing second fiddle to other stars, most players of Mata’s caliber and with his list of achievements would have asked for a much more prominent role or to be let go to find that spotlight in another club. He never did. Never complained, never made a scene, never made a bad gesture to the club or the supporters and always tried to provide something good when called upon.
It has been a very tough time for United since Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013 and Mata is probably an example of “right place at the wrong time”, but it is great evidence of his professionalism and dedication to the club that he never acted like the club owed him anything. Ironically enough, perhaps a more selfish attitude would have helped him if we look at his career in recent years, but he is widely respected and appreciated by the United community for always being a kind, noble professional in the face of adversity.
Football players these days don’t normally love their clubs and it’s more of a job for them – that’s fine as long as they are professional and perform to the required level. But when a player shows commitment and loyalty in the hardest moments, especially when it is easier to walk away, that is highly appreciated.
Mata lasted eight and a half seasons at United and he had arguments to leave in many different moments, but never did. At a time where a lot of different players, such as Edinson Cavani, Paul Pogba or Jesse Lingard, among many others, have bailed out on this club during this god-forsaken season, the Spaniard, a World Cup and Champions League winner, never did anything wrong and even showed glimpses of his quality when interim manager Ralf Rangnick decided to unfroze him from the bench in the final days of his borderline satanic tenure.
This article isn’t meant to celebrate Juan Mata as a player – you have enough goals, assists, touches of quality and whatnot to remind yourself of this great footballer. This piece is meant to highlight the man and to appreciate the kind of decency, respect and kindness that is so rare but so important in the modern game.
It was necessary for Mata to go; the club is going to rebuild (again) and it is important to cut ties with a lot of different players, but Juan leaves in a much more positive light because of everything he has done on the pitch and off the pitch. Whether it’s being a positive influence for young players, a good teammate, a good presence for any United activity and overall just being a gentleman, Juan Mata was always there.
Sadly for all parties involved, he had to arrive at a time where the club has struggled massively and he wasn’t able to enjoy the success he might have deserved. But life cannot be based on suppositions or conditional terms–we only have what happened and for that we can appreciate El Mago and what he did for us.
All the best to Juan Mata in the next chapter of his career. Hopefully he can get the spotlight he deserves and end his career in the best possible terms. He deserves everything good that happens to him and every moment of magic is forever ingrained in the memories of every United player.
Let’s not mourn what might have been and celebrate what we had.
Juan Mata: not just a great player, but a great man.