Chelsea Book Club is a new series where we take a Chelsea-related book and review some of the most interesting extracts. Next up is Juan Mata’s 2019 autobiography, Suddenly A Footballer.
A good book can be a priceless asset in this period of spending so many hours indoors, while a good Chelsea book is even better to combat the lack of football action. Last week we looked at Frank Lampard's Totally Frank and now our attention switches to one of our current boss's former team-mates.
Mata’s recent autobiography tells the inside story of his journey from growing up in northern Spain and rising through the ranks at Real Oviedo then Real Madrid, to breaking through at Valencia and moving to the Premier League.
He documents his football adventure in typically thoughtful and emotive style, opening up about the experiences and people that have shaped his career. Common Goal, the charitable initiative set up in 2017 with the support of Mata, will receive 99 per cent of the book’s income.
The extracts that will undoubtedly interest Chelsea fans most are those reflecting back on the Champions League final in Munich in May 2012, with Mata revealing the motivational methods used by Roberto Di Matteo - ‘a man who knew how to electrify us’ - before the game.
A motivational meeting in Munich
After a day spent counting down the hours in their hotel in the German capital, the Chelsea players were summoned to their team meeting room for one final tactical briefing before departing for the Allianz Arena.
Normally, such meetings would comprise of the coaching staff highlighting the key strengths and weaknesses of the opposition, although this talk was quite different to any Mata or his team-mates had experienced before. Instead of honing the game plan one last time with his players, Di Matteo wanted to pull on their heartstrings.
‘There were 25 guys all silent, looking at the big screen in front of us,’ writes Mata. ‘Suddenly, starting with the goalkeepers and featuring every single player in the team, our families and friends were sending us a message of courage and passion that we would never forget. Wives, partners, mums, daughters and sons, fathers and grandparents.
‘I still get goosebumps thinking about it. The effect it had on us was electrifying. It was Roberto’s idea. He considered that part of the game crucial, and he was right in every respect, in what he showed us, as well as in the timing. He was spot-on.’
Smelling the grass at the Allianz Arena
Mata was an influential figure for the Blues on that night in Munich, perhaps the greatest night in Chelsea history, even if he was responsible for our sole miss in the penalty shootout. It was his inswinging corner, with mere minutes left on the clock, delivered so teasingly for Didier Drogba to draw us level with a thumping near-post header.
He had been told by his sister beforehand to ‘look around, enjoy the moment’ and that is what he tried to do as the blue half of the stadium went crazy when Drogba’s penalty was buried into Manuel Neuer’s bottom corner, as well as before kick-off.
‘Her last words ahead of the final were something like: ‘Take in everything around you, the lights, the sounds, feel the grass. Try to stop for a moment to think about where you are and how wonderful it is to be there before the game kicks off.’
‘So there I was, surrounded by 75,000 people, smelling grass and closing my eyes, seconds before starting the Champions League final. If you watch that game back, and look for me just before the referee blows the whistle, you will probably be able to see the grass on my hands.’
On the game itself, Mata believes it was a triumph of shackling the opponents, maximising our own strengths and striking decisively at the key moments.
‘When you play against opponents like Barcelona in the semi-final, or Bayern in the final, the best thing you can do is adapt your team in order to find the best route to victory,’ he explains. ‘We had to play compact and take our chances, and that’s what we did. We were aware of our own limits and so we tried to play to our strengths.’
Mutual respect and affection
Mata’s time in west London lasted two-and-a-half years, in which period he won the Champions League, FA Cup and Europa League, before a transfer to Manchester United in January 2014. He has been back to the Bridge often in the red of United, where he is welcomed warmly by the Chelsea fans who remember his contribution during a magical time for the club.
The Spaniard was regretful that he did not get the chance to say goodbye to the Chelsea supporters in person – he wrote a letter to them instead, the night before moving to the north-west – though his returns since have reinforced the bond between him and the Stamford Bridge faithful.
‘I had to wait more than a year to return to Stamford Bridge,’ he writes. ‘It ended up being a fantastic experience for me. It always is when I play there.
‘In the 70th minute of the game, I was getting ready to walk over to the sideline to be replaced by Adnan Januzaj. Suddenly everyone took to their feet and gave me a standing ovation. I will never, ever forget that moment.’
Suddenly A Footballer was published by Reach Sport in 2019. Click here to purchase a copy.