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Different Sides. Same Team.

Juan Mata and Dani Olmo discuss Common Goal ahead of Champions League decider

When Juan Mata’s Manchester United travel to face Dani Olmo’s RB Leipzig on Tuesday evening, the chances are only one will come away with a place in the Champions League knock-out stages.

Yet despite the high stakes and conflicting aims on the pitch, prior to kick-off the two Spaniards came together, not as opponents but rather as teammates.

Since joining the Common Goal movement earlier this year, Olmo and Mata have played side by side on football’s growing social impact collective by using the game as a tool to help tackle social issues.

And ahead of the tie, the two attacking midfielders got together over Zoom, stressing the importance more over what they had in common: two elite football players with a social consciousness that has led them using their platform to take collective action.

With Olmo ten years Mata’s junior, the United number eight was quick to compliment the journey his compatriot has undertaken, both as a player and as a person, at such a young age.

“The first thing I’m envious of in Dani is his age, and all the football he still has before him,” said Mata.

“I look at Dani with pride and I have a lot of hope for him: the level he’s at, he’s already in the national team, and he’s someone I enjoy watching play.

“It’s very hard to play against him, as we saw at Old Trafford: he assists, he scores, he combines well, has vision, he’s very complete. And I’m sure he hasn’t reached his ceiling yet.

“And to have a player that young thinking about how he can help through football, someone who recognizes the power of football beyond scoring goals or winning titles. It is also something that fills me with pride and makes look at him with enthusiasm.”

Through his 1% pledge, Olmo is supporting football-based community organisation Cross Culture Projects in Croatia where he spent five years as a player with Dinamo Zagreb.

The organisation’s work has operated for several years across the Balkans and aims to bring back stability to post-conflict communities.

Like Juan, who Olmo sees as a “role model”, he also left home at an early age. This time going abroad to Croatia at the age of 16 — a country Olmo now calls his second home and. while there, one he learnt was not long out of the grips of war, where he himself could see the scars and effects.

"A short time ago Croatia suffered a war and still has consequences. I saw myself with the obligation to help the most disadvantaged children , who have suffered its consequences," he said.

“I went to Croatia at 16, thinking that was the best way to progress. 

“Yes, it’s hard but in the first few years my mum went with me and I was always clear what I wanted to be. I am where I am now, at Leipzig and in the national team, because I went there then.”

As the Covid-19 rages on, fans haven’t been allowed back into stadiums in Germany. And in their absence, both Olmo and Mata have questioned football’s purpose. Between them, the hope is that collectively this moment marks a turning point whereby tackling social challenges becomes part of the game’s DNA.

“Football is a bit strange now without fans, very sad: they’re the essence of football and, while [their absence] is a reality, we don’t want to get used to this,” Olmo said.

“We want them back, to return to normal in football and life. It would have been very special to have played at Old Trafford with fans and here too. Hopefully we can still enjoy this. It will be difficult, it will be close, but we’ll do what we can to win. It’s in our hands.”

“We’re living through a moment where players are seeing the power they have, the platform to reach people and help,” added Mata.

“Players like Marcus [Rashford], [Raheem] Sterling, Héctor Bellerín, [Jordan] Henderson at Liverpool, when the collective fund was created. That’s a symptom too of the moment we’re in. Sadly, sometimes it seems we need something to happen to realise we all depend on each other, need each other. The most affected are the ones already in the worst situations.”

“I don’t see social causes as something outside of football; it’s integral to football, which is a tool for inclusivity, equality, an escape valve for boys and girls who come together through football, are educated through football, make friends there, find a safe space. It’s important to take football closer to people. Football has to extend a hand.”