World Cup winner Juan Mata is breaking the mould, challenging the general perception of spoilt, rich footballers and helping to awaken the sport’s social conscience through the Common Goal project.
The Manchester United midfielder is encouraging players to follow his example and pledge a minimum of one percent of their wages to a collective fund — and he wants to make it “the biggest football club in the world”.
So far 34 footballers, including German World Cup winner Mats Hummels, Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini and Japan’s Shinji Kagawa plus UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin, have pledged part of their salary to Common Goal, run by NGO street football world, which has assembled a global network of community organisations.
Mata’s one percent helps the India-based OSCAR Foundation, which promotes the value of education through football, a gender equality project in Colombia and also goes into a general pot.
The Spanish international, speaking to AFP after visiting two primary schools through his work with the Manchester United Foundation in a deprived area of northwest England, is disarmingly modest about being seen as a figurehead of Common Goal.
“Curiosity got me into it,” says the 29-year-old. “Someone had to start it and Jurgen (Griesbeck, the founder of streetfootballworld) and myself said ‘let’s start and see how people react’ and they have reacted well.
“It is not about myself. It is trying to be the biggest football club in the world.
“Just with me it wouldn’t go very far. In football it is very important to have a team bond and spirit and even more so with Common Goal.”
Mata, who is also studying for two degrees, says he is happy with the response so far, even if he does not yet have a global superstar signed up.
“People tend to think about the ones who aren’t in and I prefer to talk about those who had the courage to voluntarily call and be part of it,” he says. “I am really proud of them.
“We are having important discussions with people who make decisions in football about how to integrate Common Goal into the football industry and if it turns out differently it doesn’t matter. I just feel it is needed and fair for the world somehow.”
Life in a ‘bubble’
Mata, who won the Champions League with former club Chelsea in 2012, has admitted in the past that footballers live in a “bubble” but he says it is understandable that sometimes they forget their modest roots.
“It’s not easy when you are 20, 21 years old,” he says.
“Imagine you play for a club like Manchester United, you start getting famous, you start to get some good money and we are not ready for that at that age, so it’s difficult to keep your feet on the ground and to think about ‘OK let’s gonna keep that way, let’s not forget from where I come from’.
Mata credits his family with nurturing a philanthropic streak.
“Common Goal comes from my education and my family,” he says. “They taught me things, my parents, my sister, my grandfather, who was influential in my personal life and professional one.
“In the whole family he was fantastic, everyone loved him so much,” the player added of his late grandfather, who died last year.
“And for him to have lived so many finals, happy moments, it makes me feel happy with myself, and he definitely was and still is a big influence in my life and in my family’s life.”
Mata was struck deeply by a visit he and his girlfriend made to the OSCAR Foundation in Mumbai last year and they subsequently put on a photographic exhibition in Manchester.
“I experienced some hard moments,” he says. “When you see the state of how many people live and the extreme between wealthy and poor people money-wise it is hard to bear.
“But it was a great experience to feel how spiritually rich they are, many of the people we visited.
“It was very, very good to see the Oscar Foundation’s work first hand and to live there with them. The classroom is in the slums and it was important to see it.”
Football remains Mata’s passion but increasingly as a tool for social change.
“Football unites all the projects but they do education, gender equality and basic needs but football is always present,” he says.
“It is something I always wanted to do, to use the power of football for the better.”