In his new book, Suddenly a Footballer, Juan Mata references, at various points, Nelson Mandela, Aristotle, Augustine of Hippo, Steve Jobs, Rudyard Kipling, Viktor Frankl and Marcelo Bielsa.
Thirty years ago, English football would not have coped well with this. Graeme Le Saux was regarded as a leper and a deviant because he read The Guardian.
Times have changed and Premier League dressing rooms are more cosmopolitan places now. Mata does not feel isolated as Le Saux once did. He has plenty of contemporaries, he says, who share his interests and his love of literature.
Juan Mata spoke to Sportsmail at an Art Gallery to discuss his colourful life on and off the pitch
Mata’s new book features cultural references not typically associated with footballers
Mata will donate 99% of profits from his book, Suddenly a Footballer, to Common Goal charity
He is the first footballer I have ever interviewed at an art gallery but that is not what makes him different. What makes him different runs deeper than that.
Two years ago, shocked by the poverty he had seen on a trip to Mumbai, the Manchester United midfielder established the Common Goal initiative by pledging one per cent of his salary to charity and urged other football figures to follow him.
A few, including Leicester goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel, have done so. Last week, Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp revealed he had added his name to the list.
But we knew that about Mata already. Off the pitch, Common Goal has become one of the driving forces in his life. He is donating 99 per cent of the proceeds of sales of his book to it.
But as he sits in the cafe of Manchester’s Whitworth Art Gallery the day after United’s loss to West Ham last Sunday, it becomes apparent that there is something about his attitude to playing for the club that makes him stand out, too.
Mata arrived at Old Trafford from Chelsea in January 2014, just as United’s hegemony in English football was coming to an end. He had won the World Cup, the European Championship and the Champions League.
All by the age of 24. Beguiling fans with the sweetest left foot in the Premier League, he had been player of the season twice at Stamford Bridge.
Mata joined Man United from Chelsea in 2014 after a trophy-laden three years at Chelsea
Mata won the Champions League, Europa League and FA Cup at Stamford Bridge
The Spaniard left Chelsea after Jose Mourinho decided he wasn’t part of his plans
His vision and his speed of thought had made him one of the best players in English football and, even though his sublime skills did not fit in with Jose Mourinho’s prosaic, muscular idea of what he wanted in a footballer during his second coming at Chelsea, Mata’s £37.1million signing was trumpeted as a great personal triumph by United’s executive vice-chairman, Ed Woodward.
It was not long, though, until Mata became a victim of the dysfunctional mess United have become under Woodward and the Glazers.
How is this for confused thinking: United sign Mata and make him one of their most expensive assets after Mourinho makes it clear Mata is not his type of player. Two years later, United make Mourinho their boss.
But here is what is really different about Mata. Even when it became clear that United in the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era had become a football dystopia, lurching from one managerial appointment to another, from one sacking to another, lacking any cogent plan, slipping further and further behind Manchester City and Liverpool, Mata did not run. Others did.
Mata did not look at the chaos around him at Old Trafford and think he would be well out of it. Mata did not treat the arrival of Mourinho in Manchester as an excuse to get the hell out of there.
Mata knew it was going to be a long road back for United but he still wanted in.
Jose Mourinho took charge at Old Trafford just 18 months after he sold Mata to United
Mata admits it would’ve been easy to leave United but stayed to win Mourinho’s trust
Mata has acknowledged United’s current struggles but remains convinced of future success
He still wants in now. He admits that the journey back from London after the West Ham defeat was quiet. He barely slept that Sunday night.
The thing that killed him was how disappointed the fans would be. That is why he still wants to stay. He signed a new two-year deal in June. He is desperate to help put it all right.
‘Even though I could have taken the easy road and thought ‘it is very difficult at this club in this moment and that’s it, I prefer to go somewhere else and take an easier challenge,’ if I had done that, I wouldn’t have been able to forgive myself,’ he said.
‘So I know it’s not the greatest moment of the club but I prefer much more to be suffering these difficult moments hoping that, in the future, we can do something really nice and win and that that victory will overcome all the frustration we might have had.
‘Some people tell me I signed for United at the wrong time but being at this club is very special. Since I was a kid, I saw this club winning. When the opportunity to come to United arrived, I had no doubts. I wanted to feel what it was to be a Manchester United player from inside.
‘It was the moment in which there was a big change in everything and we are still there in that process. It has taken a few years and I’m here those years. It is still a privilege to be here.
Mata says he wishes he’d joined United during their pomp but is privileged to be at club
‘I wish it was in a time when we were winning Premier Leagues but I want to change what is happening. We are getting closer. There is no way this club is not going to come back to where it should be.
‘Hopefully that will be with me because that is what I wish for more than anything else right now in my professional career. But if not, it will happen without me.
‘There will be nothing that will make me happier than feeling that. I felt that deep happiness with the supporters by winning an important trophy. I wouldn’t change that for anything.
‘If I get it, it would be incredible. If I don’t, I’ll be happy with myself for having tried until I could. I tried my best. Sometimes you don’t get what you hope for but at least I will have fulfilled that promise with myself of trying until I can to see this city celebrating in red.
‘David de Gea told me about the day they celebrated winning the league in Deansgate and I want to see that.
‘I would take that over anything. Maybe that’s me being stubborn. I have people telling me it’s difficult, other clubs are doing well, that I should change clubs and not try the impossible. But what counts is that I will have tried until the end.’
It is tempting for devotees of Mata to blame Mourinho for interrupting the momentum of the Spain midfielder’s career. Not once but twice.
Mata has spent the second phase of his playing days trying to get somewhere close to recapturing the glories of the first phase but he insists he bears no animus towards his former boss, who is one of three managers he has outlasted at Old Trafford.
Mata insists he doesn’t blame Mourinho for interrupting the momentum of his career
‘I have no personal bitterness towards him at all,’ says Mata. ‘My football is not perfect for his idea of football. That’s what happens. I was at Chelsea, player of the year for two years, everything was rosy and then he arrived with a different approach, which I respect because there is not only one approach in football.
‘So there was a football reason. I take it like it is. I went to United and after some time, he came to United, too. I feel content and happy with myself because again the easiest decision would have been to leave, knowing his approach and my qualities. But I didn’t leave and despite what many people said and wrote, I played more than people expected.
‘I felt like an important player, I played the two finals we played and I felt proud of myself for being strong and taking the challenge and not leaving.
‘I might play more or less because of the way he plans football but I am going to be here and I am going to show everyone, most of all myself, that I can overcome things in football. And I did. I had good seasons with him and I feel content with that.’
Mata, 31, is also fighting the trend towards physicality in the game and the idea that players are judged on their statistics rather than the nuances of their performance.
Analysts talk more and more about the importance of transition and particularly speed in transition and Mata is sometimes accused of slowing the game down. Mata is not slow but his real speed is in his brain.
He sees things before others see them. He reads the game better than others read it. He sees a run no one else sees. He can play a pass no one else can play. There is a danger that those are becoming old-fashioned virtues.
Mata says having a sound understanding of the game is more important than physical size
Late in Suddenly a Footballer, Mata quotes the American author William Bruce Cameron. ‘Not everything that can be counted counts and not everything that counts can be counted,’ Cameron wrote, an idea that forms part of Mata’s philosophy. When I ask him if he thinks his career has suffered because of the new reliance on stats, he nods.
‘Probably yes,’ he says. ‘I still think the understanding of the game and thinking while playing is the core of football and is the most important thing to have as a player. The game has evolved physically a lot. When we see games in the Eighties and Nineties, the rhythm was a lot different to today.
‘The importance of physical stats from managers, media and fans is probably not the biggest asset in my game. The game has evolved in a way where players like my type are seen with certain doubts whereas before we were seen as the ones that made everyone happy and tried to create.
‘Now some managers view this type of player as a liability. They are creating but they cannot be as solid as others. People say I am not quick enough in transition but there is a different kind of speed. There is also the speed in your decision-making. If I can play a pass that makes that transition better, I will try to play on my strengths. That’s why I managed to be a football player. You play with your decisions, not just your physique.’
Mata has sympathised with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and says the players haven’t done their jobs
Mata is fighting as hard as anyone to try to bring the good times back to Old Trafford. He struggled to impose himself on the game at the London Stadium and missed a second-half chance when he reacted a fraction late at the back post to a ball across the face of the goal and poked it wide.
Later in the week, he and De Gea hosted a team-bonding meal at Mata’s Tapeo & Wine restaurant in Manchester. United, Mata points out, are on the same points as Spurs and Chelsea. The season has not started particularly well but it could be worse.
The fact United were in eighth place going into a weekend which will end with Monday night’s game against Arsenal means that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is already under pressure. Mauricio Pochettino and Massimiliano Allegri, among others, are being mentioned as potential successors. Woodward, once more, is looking like a rabbit in the headlights.
Mata says: ‘It is never easy when you change manager because it shows as players you are not doing your job as you should. It is the easy thing to do. Change your manager and it can help change your mindset, but it is never a good sign. It is much better to have a manager for 25 years and win 13 Premier Leagues.
Mata poses for a picture with the Mail on Sunday’s chief sports writer Oliver Holt
‘Sometimes, you have to be patient. When I was young, it felt like everything was going in my direction. Everything happened quickly in the first part of my career. Football was great. You play, you win. You play, you enjoy. I didn’t know football wasn’t like that until I didn’t win and play as much.
‘In the last part of my career, which is about to come, I hope there are some nice surprises for me.
‘I value everything I won before but I never felt difficulties. I didn’t feel any worries, any problems, any setbacks. If you have frustration and then you come back to the happy days, it feels more meaningful.
‘I want to feel the happiness of winning the biggest trophies at this club. If it happens, that feeling will overcome all the frustration. It would be the most enjoyable and meaningful success of my career.’
Juan Mata is proud to support Common Goal, which aims to unite football in tackling our greatest social challenges. He is giving 99 per cent of the proceeds from his new book, Suddenly A Footballer, to the cause. Read the book to find out why.