A Common Goal

Today, I am launching something that I hope will help to change the world, even if only in some small way. And I hope that other footballers around the world will help me in this goal. But before I tell you about it, I must tell you what football means to me.

To do that we have to start with something that I will never forget.

I can still see the cross coming in. I can see the ball bouncing off Thomas Müller’s head, looping over Petr Čech and then hitting the crossbar and going in. And then I remember the sound. I couldn’t even hear myself think … it was just pure electricity.

Bayern Munich had scored in Munich, in the 83rd minute of the 2012 Champions League final to go up 1–0 on Chelsea — my team. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard a sound like that before.

A few seconds later, I was standing at the center circle of the Allianz Arena, waiting for the Bayern players to stop celebrating the goal that they thought had just won the match. Didier Drogba, my Chelsea teammate, walked up to me to restart play. Didier never had his head down — never looked discouraged — but now he did. And I couldn’t understand why. We had gone through so much to get to the final. Our manager had been sacked a few months before, then we had come from behind to beat Napoli in the round of 16, then we had survived with 10-men at Camp Nou in the semifinals. And now … what? It was over?

I put my hand on Didier’s shoulder and said, “Look around, Didier. Look where we are. Please, don’t worry. Keep believing … just believe.”

For some reason I just kept thinking, We are destined to win this thing.

I’m a pretty quiet person, and I think when Didier saw me encouraging him to keep going, he couldn’t help but smile.

He said, “O.K., Juan. Let’s go.”    

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We were surrounded by 50,000 screaming German fans, but down on the pitch, Didier and I knew that we just needed a chance. And five minutes later, we got one. We won a corner. I lined up over the ball and Didier came running to the near post. You remember, yes?

I think every Chelsea fan remembers Martin Tyler’s call.

“Drogbaaaaaaaaaaaaa! They’ve pulled the rabbit out of the hat again! Chelsea will just not let go in the Champions League!”

After we scored that equalizer … I just knew. Even when we went to penalty kicks, I still knew. And when Didier stepped up to take the final penalty, I was sure he was going to score. I think the expression on his face after the ball went in said everything. He didn’t know whether he wanted to cry or laugh. He was overwhelmed, like we all were.

And as soon as the craziness died down — I immediately thought of my family. Every one of them was there in the crowd that night: my dad, mom, grandparents, friends. I knew the penalties must have been stressful for them — especially my poor grandmother.

Later on, someone told me that she had been so nervous that she actually had to hide in the bathroom toward the end of the match.

As we were celebrating, I looked around at my teammates, and I saw the beauty of football. A keeper from the Czech Republic. A defender from Serbia, and another from Brazil. Midfielders from Ghana, Nigeria, Portugal, Spain and England. And, of course, one incredible striker from Côte D’Ivoire.

We came from all over the world, from different circumstances, and spoke many different languages. Some had grown up during wartime. Some had grown up in poverty. But there we were, all standing together in Germany as champions of Europe.

The way we had come together from all around the world to work for a common goal was more meaningful to me than the trophy. To me, that is something that can change the world for the better.

I am very lucky. I was born into an incredibly supportive family in northern Spain. My father was a former footballer — a tricky winger. He was leftfooted, like me, but (I will admit) he was faster. He loved to dribble at players. I remember watching video cassettes of his old matches at our house in Oviedo. Watching him play made football look fun. That’s how I wanted football to be for me, too.

And that’s how things were for me as a kid — it’s how I was raised. Even though my father was a footballer, I was never forced to play football. My parents, Juan and Marta, wanted me and my sister, Paula, to experience everything life had to offer.

The first autograph I ever signed wasn’t because I was good at football. It was actually because I was really good at trivia — like general academic questions, but harder. When I was 13 I was chosen for a team to go to a regional competition where we had to answer around 200–300 questions. We ended up winning, and the next day all the younger kids at school wanted our autographs.

A few weeks later, my trivia team went on a trip to Austria, Germany, Liechtenstein and Switzerland. That trip was my first time really getting to see how people in other countries lived. At such a young age, it gave me a different perspective on the world. I didn’t know everything. But I knew that I wanted to see more.

When I was 15, football gave me that chance.

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I had just finished a match with my local region team, Asturias, and my dad was taking me home like he usually did. But this time, we went a different way. We pulled into a parking lot where only one other car was parked. There was a man waiting for us … and I recognized him. He was one of the head scouts for Real Madrid. I’d seen him at a few of our matches.

My father spoke with him for a couple of minutes, and then he came back to the car and told me that Madrid wanted to sign me. I was so overwhelmed … I didn’t really know what to think. Madrid? Real Madrid? Wants me?

I spent the next few days talking it over with my family. It was hard for my mom and dad to just send me off to a big city like Madrid, but our family has this saying: “Sometimes the train doesn’t come twice in life.”

On that day, it had come for me. And I knew that it might never come again.

I also spoke with my grandfather, who was my biggest fan. He was the one who had taken me to training sessions and matches when my parents were busy. He had watched every single one of my matches, too. He told me to follow my heart, and that my dream of being a professional footballer required risks.

When people talk about football, it’s usually about money or trophies. But football also provides something else to young people. It provides real-life experience. And sometimes real life is difficult.

At Madrid’s youth academy, I learned how to live alone and to be away from my parents for weeks at a time. When you’re on your own, you discover things about yourself. I thought a lot about all of the hard work and the sacrifices that my parents and grandparents had made to get me to where I was. And I realized that I had a responsibility to them to work hard and make the most of my chance. But at a club like Madrid — which at the time had players like Beckham, Figo, Zidane, Roberto Carlos and many others — it can be hard to do that.

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So in the summer of 2007, I signed with Valencia. I wish I could tell you that my time there was perfect, but it wasn’t. I think we changed managers three times in my first season. I was a 19-year-old, surrounded by all the these players in their mid-30s. My family was worried for me. Especially my grandfather. He came to a lot of matches in Valencia. And when he wasn’t there, he would watch on TV. He never missed a match of my professional career. I remember calling him one night when I was struggling, and I’ll never forget what he said to me.

“Your football and your career, Juan, they give me life. I feel so proud and I am filled with hope when I watch you.”

That call had a tremendous impact on me — and on the way I thought about football. What I was doing in my career wasn’t just about me. It was about us. I was playing because I brought joy to people in different ways than just by scoring goals. My grandfather was the living embodiment of this feeling, and after I realized that, I made sure to keep that thought with me at all times.

I think of my four years at Valencia as my “master’s degree,” because that’s where I learned the art of football and gained valuable perspective on life.

My time in England was like the real world that comes after university. It was filled with tremendous highs — two club Player of the Year trophies at Chelsea and a Champions League title. But also some lows. My third year in London was difficult. I fell out of favor in the squad and I began to question my own ability. But I never felt any bitterness toward anyone. That’s not how I was raised.

I care deeply about relationships. In football, this can be tricky. When I left Chelsea for Manchester United, I still cared about the club. I wanted to make sure they got an appropriate fee and that I could maintain my connection with the people in London. And I hope I did that.

But I’m a Red Devil now. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. There are great clubs in the world, and then there is Manchester United. I learned pretty quickly what that meant. In my second season with United, I scored a bicycle-kick goal against Liverpool at Anfield, and today — no matter where our team is in the world — it’s almost always the first thing people ask me about. I come from a small town in Spain, where maybe a few thousand people saw me score goals, but now I score goals that people see whether they live in Oviedo or Los Angeles — or Beijing or Melbourne. The United family is worldwide, and almost every day I am reminded of the power football has to unite people all over the world.

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There are great clubs in the world, and then there is Manchester United.

Juan Mata

My love for United supporters has grown every year I’ve been in Manchester. I’m glad to have given them moments like that one against Liverpool. But in February, I needed the people of Manchester to help me.

My grandfather — who had still never missed a professional match of mine — was really sick. I remember FaceTiming with him when I was on the bus after we had beaten Saint-Etienne 1–0 in France in a Europa League match. His voice was weak … I could tell that he was struggling. His words came out slowly, but he told me that my assist to Henrikh Mkhitaryan during that match had been great.

That was probably the most special assist of my life. Because it was the last one my grandfather ever saw. A few days later, he passed away.

You know when something important happens in your life and you remember exactly where you are? I remember everything from that match and the bus ride home. And I hope that when I see my grandfather again we can speak about it.

I flew to Spain to go to his funeral a short time later. When I came back to Manchester and turned on my phone, I saw all the messages from the United supporters on social media — and it meant the world to me. I wish I could have hugged everyone who reached out to me.

We won the next match we played, a league cup fixture against Southampton. But afterward, I felt a little … hollow. I didn’t have my grandfather to share the victory with. One of the things in football, and in life, that I’m most proud of is that I have been able to share my greatest moments with my family. But in that moment, when I desperately wanted to speak with my grandfather, I couldn’t. So instead I began to reflect.

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I thought about everything football had given me. And I thought about what I wanted my legacy to be. I knew how lucky I was to have the opportunities I’d had — and that not everyone has a family like mine. And even though I’ve been engaged with charities before, I knew that I wanted to do something more. I want to make sure that other kids get the chances I had.

So starting today, I am pledging 1% of my salary to Common Goal, a collective fund — run by the award-winning NGO streetfootballworld  — that supports football charities around the globe. It’s a small gesture that if shared can change the world.

I’m asking my fellow professionals to join me in forming a Common Goal Starting XI. Together we can create a movement based on shared values that can become integral to the whole football industry — forever.

I am leading this effort, but I don’t want to be alone.

One of the first lessons I learned in football is that it takes a team to accomplish your dreams. We live by this mantra on the pitch, yet we don’t see it enough in the social space. Common Goal is creating a collaborative way for football to give back to society. It’s the most effective and sustainable way that football can deliver long-term social impact on a global scale. Football has the power to do this, but we need to act together.

The focus now is on contributions from players, but the the long-term goal is to unlock 1% of the entire football industry’s revenues for grassroots football charities that strengthen their communities through sport.

Just last month, I traveled to Mumbai, India, to see one such charity. We went to a slum just outside the main city, and at first it was very hard to comprehend the level of poverty. No child should have to live like that. Seeing the conditions, my spirits were a bit down.

But then we started interacting with the local kids. Their English wasn’t great, and I’m not sure all of them even knew that I was a football player, but we communicated through laughter and the game. If I smiled, they smiled. If I ran, they ran.

They knew we were there to help, and there was this tangible energy in the air. And, I think, in the same way that I gave my grandfather life — these children were giving me life.

So now I would like to call upon my fellow footballers to help. We have so many opportunities simply because we play a children’s game. We are so lucky to live a dream. Let’s come together and help kids everywhere experience that same light and joy. By doing so we can show the wider football industry that Common Goal needs to happen and that it will happen, because it’s right.

To learn more about Common Goal and how to join the team, visit http://www.common-goal.org/. And to support streetworldfootball and their cause, visit http://www.streetfootballworld.org/donate-now