The Manchester United midfielders Common Goal project, in which players and managers donate 1% of their salary to charity, makes him a worthy recipient
The Guardian Footballer of the Year is an award given to a player who has done something truly remarkable, whether by overcoming adversity, helping others or setting a sporting example by acting with exceptional honesty. The inaugural winner was Fabio Pisacane in 2016
Each time you meet Juan Mata its a surprise how small he appears in person. You never expect a giant of a man to be only 5ft 7in tall, and to cut such a slight figure or to flash a warm smile, but the Guardians Footballer of the Year for 2017 has always made a habit of confounding expectations about himself and the game he loves.
This year Mata has done more than anyone to give fresh belief that professional football is not only built on greed and staggering wages for its strutting prima donnas. The Manchester United and Spain midfielder, instead, has broken new ground and begun to use footballs power and wealth to help ordinary people around the world.
Its a very simple idea, Mata says with typical understatement as he describes the remarkable Common Goal initiative he helped to launch in August, so that he and a growing number of his colleagues can donate 1% of their salaries to global charities. But some of the best ideas are simple ones and, when it comes to football, the power of the game is incredible. Anyone who understands football will know why we are so hopeful and ambitious with Common Goal.
In less than five months Mata has been joined by 35 other football people from 17 countries in donating 1% of their salaries to Common Goal. All the money raised will be given to football charities where it is needed most and the project now includes, beyond the players, its first manager, administrator and startup initiative.
The players, of course, are the real drivers of Common Goal and Mata has been joined by high-profile internationals such as Mats Hummels, Giorgio Chiellini, Shinji Kagawa and Kasper Schmeichel as well as leading women footballers in Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe.
Julian Nagelsmann, the 30-year-old who has forged a dynamic reputation at Hoffenheim, became the first head coach to join Common Goal in October while Aleksander Ceferin, the Uefa president, also pledged 1% of his salary to the cause. When announcing his backing last month, Ceferin said: I call upon everyone in the international football community players, coaches, clubs and leagues to show they care about social initiatives and donate to causes they believe in.
Common Goals grand ambition is to reach a position where 1% of footballs entire multibillion dollar industry is donated to charity. It might seem an impossible dream just as a young boys fantasy of becoming a top footballer almost always seems unobtainable. But Mata was one of those who fulfilled his footballing dream.
We have met twice this year and, during our first interview, Mata spoke evocatively when remembering how, having joined Real Oviedo aged 10 in 1998, he was given a previously unimaginable opportunity. Mata sat in a car park in 2003, when he was 14, and watched his father talking to a Real Madrid scout. My first thought was: Wow, my dad is speaking with a guy from Real Madrid Academy! Is this happening? Until that moment I saw myself very far from that. I was in my home town doing good for Real Oviedo and playing with older people but you never realise your level until some of these big clubs speak to your dad.