In an exclusive interview with The Scotsman, Manchester United player reflects on the end of La Roja dominance
HIS country have been unceremoniously deposed as champions and he has yet to feature in the tournament. These are not optimal conditions to be sitting down to interview Juan Mata.
However, this intelligent and articulate footballer is one of the best equipped within a still-numb Spanish squad to engage in an analysis of the biggest talking point of this World Cup so far.
Mata’s view is a valuable one. He is a member of the new guard, someone who is preparing to answer the call, though whether it will come from current manager Vicente del Bosque, or a replacement, time will tell.
He remains a willing conscript despite the obvious frustrations, and is expected to feature in midfield this afternoon against Australia as Spain wind up their undistinguished World Cup odyssey in downbeat style. Despite remaining on the bench in both of their defeats – by the Netherlands and Chile – the 33-times capped Mata remains “honoured” to be included in the squad.
“I have been here since I was 20 years old,” he said, in an interview with The Scotsman yesterday. “So for me it is a pleasure every time I come and represent my country.
“Right now, it is a very difficult moment. But what these players, this manager and this generation have done, it is amazing. I feel really lucky to be in the group.”
However, an absence of fortune is what he believes has contributed to a situation in which Spain have gone from hoping to be make history to simply going home, as soon as this afternoon’s clash with Australia has ended.
For the first time since La Roja returned from the World Cup in 2006, there will be no trophy to declare to customs at the other end. “Of course it is a pity to be out after two games,” he said. “We wanted to fight until the end to win the trophy.
“But it shows how difficult it is to win even one [World Cup]. So imagine how difficult it is to win two in a row. To win the World Cup first of all you have to be a good team but you also have to be lucky at some point.
“I think we were lucky in South Africa. We were an amazing team but we were lucky in some moments of games, which we were not in this World Cup. That’s football,” he added, while reflecting on the opportunities squandered when leading 1-0 in what eventually became a 5-1 defeat by the Netherlands. “We had one or two chances to build a 2-0 lead before half-time.”
Then his clubmate Robin van Persie intervened, and it has been downhill since then.
The post-mortems have been extensive. Mata, however, does not agree with those who are intent on consigning Spain’s once much-revered style of ‘tiki-taka’ football to the past.
The philosophy is so inbred in the players, he argues, that it would be foolish to dispense with it now following just one failure, extreme though it has been.
“Every team has to play in the way that the players are, and the way that are the characteristics of the players,” he said. “That has been the type of football until now and I don’t see any reason to change radically that philosophy. We still have players who can play in that way. The most important thing is to be successful in this way.
“I think we will be back. We have been fighting every two years for the trophy, for the Euros, for the World Cup.
“Unfortunately we have had two bad games and that is the truth. But I think this team can be as successful as we have been in the last six years.”
It was evening time when Mata arrived to be interviewed. You half-expected a handkerchief to be neatly folded in his breast pocket, by the stylish look he sported when he landed by helicopter upon signing for Manchester United earlier this year. It is, after all, almost dinner time at the plush training headquarters where Spain have pitched their tent.
The trouble is, it has not been a happy camp. These marquee players – and though he has not played in the tournament so far, the £37.1 million Mata is certainly one of them – are preparing to go home, rather than switch location to either Fortaleza or Belo Horizonte, where the teams who finish either top or second in their group (now guaranteed to be either the Netherlands or Chile) are bound for last-16 encounters.
It is not the way anyone wanted it to end for the champions. For Mata, you imagine, it is has proved particularly painful. He has endured watching this unfold from the sidelines, although, with changes expected, he could start today.
Xavi has been ruled out and Mata yesterday paid tribute to the skipper, who some expect has played his last match for the Seleccion. “He has been an example for everyone in the way he has played, the way he was captain of this group, this generation,” he said.
Still, the time is surely ripe for others to stake a claim. At just 26 years old, and preparing for his first full season as a Manchester United player, Mata is in line to become more established in the side. By the time of the next World Cup, he will be only 30.
When asked about his own recent experiences of being left out of the starting XI, he is unsurprisingly measured. He refused to resort to criticism of Jose Mourinho when be started to become a fixture on the bench for Chelsea. Instead, when he left, he wrote a polite letter to the fans, thanking them for their support.
Here, again, he was very deliberate in his response when queried about his lack of action in Brazil thus far. “Obviously everyone who comes to a World Cup wants to play,” he said. “I feel the same.”
This World Cup, in what some regard as the spiritual home of football, was supposed to be the pinnacle for so many players. For several, it has not worked out this way. Wayne Rooney has endured the brickbats yet again, but Mata is supportive of his team-mate.
“For me Wayne is one of the best English players – in history, not just now,” he said. “He always tried his best with Manchester United and England. I think he did well in both games [v Italy and Uruguay]. He tried to perform at his level; he scored a goal. But football is not just one man. It is a team sport.
“I don’t know what they [the Press] say about him. But I think he is one of England’s most important players, that’s for sure.”
Mata is now looking forward to some time away from football. Although he has not played as often as he would have hoped this season, every footballer, he says, “needs to disconnect, to switch off his mind in the summer”.
Will he switch off from the World Cup, you wonder? “Of course I will be checking what happens. But everyone needs to rest their body and mind. The next season is going to be long so I need to get ready for it.”
Mata did not speak to new club manager Louis van Gaal after the Netherlands game – “I spoke to a couple of members of his staff, but we could not see each other”. However, he added, “we saw what he is capable of”. It remains a source of deep regret that he was unable to work for longer with David Moyes, who made him Manchester United’s record signing before being sacked weeks later. “I will always be grateful for him,” said Mata. “He called me, told me how much he thought of me and how much he wanted me to come to the team. Unfortunately things did not work for him, the team and the club. But I wish him the best for the future. I think he was a good man.
“It was a decision from the club. All I can say is I wish him the best for the future. Because I will always be grateful to him.”