Juan Mata got straight to the point.
"My sister fancies you. Can she have your shirt?" David Beckham smiled and handed it over. Two observations about the story. First, it must be great to be David Beckham, and second, Mata, Chelsea's £23.5m new boy, has the courage of his convictions and is not someone to allow opportunity to pass him by.
Mata was at Real Madrid when he encountered Beckham – the young hopeful travelled to Champions League games with the first team – but, aged 19, he left the club, feeling that their faith in him did not match that that he had in himself. Fabio Capello was the manager at the time and Mata said he "didn't have much of an opportunity to interact" with him. He then joined Valencia in order to play regular football.
The decision to leave one of the world's biggest clubs took a certain maturity and it demonstrates that Mata is not the average footballer, on or off the pitch. The 23-year-old is in the midst of a university degree in sports science and marketing, and he will carry on with it by correspondence from London.
He left home and Real Oviedo for Madrid at 15 so the move to England holds no fears, merely excitement at fresh cultural experiences, even if interns can benefit from wearing bullet-proof vests at the Chelsea training ground.
Mata is engaging and level-headed, and he was polished at his somewhat belated presentation as a Chelsea player, side-stepping the questions about Fernando Torres and his own apparent snub of Arsenal. Arsène Wenger had chased him only for Chelsea to make the decisive move, and when it was put to Wenger that Mata had opted for a club who he felt had a better chance of winning trophies, the Frenchman claimed that he "doesn't necessarily tell you the truth". The implication was that money had spoken the loudest.
"Chelsea were the team that made the formal offer for me," Mata said, raising the possibility that Arsenal did not. "For me, that was very important. I want to make the most of this opportunity and try to grow. They are one of the great sides in Europe."
Mata's audience lost count of the number of times that he pledged to "grow". He spoke in Spanish but his English is passable and it will get better as he is already taking lessons. Yet it is his development on the field that is most eagerly anticipated.
He has made an eye-catching start to his Chelsea career, scoring on two of his three appearances and impressing with his technique and vision. Not a typical winger, he likes to flit inside and play "between the lines". He said that he had no preference as to whether he played on the left or the right and that he could also operate as a No10, which is the shirt number he has chosen.
The logic behind his signing is that he will be the man to help Torres, his misfiring Spain team-mate, to rediscover his goalscoring touch. Already the pair have combined, but Torres was the provider for Mata's goal in the Champions League win over Bayer Leverkusen on Tuesday.
"Fernando was an important factor; I spoke to him and he encouraged me to come [here]," Mata said. "Fernando is still the same player, a great player who has demonstrated that he can score a lot of goals. Everybody goes through phases but this will be his season. It's just a question of time."
Mata has arrived as a World Cup winner and a European Under-21 champion. He made a 20-minute substitute appearance in Spain's second group-tie game in South Africa – the 2-0 win over Honduras – but it was never in doubt that he would drop down to the Under-21s last summer, when he sparkled as his country's golden run went on.
"The Under-21 championship was an important part of my development," he said. "We won and we qualified for the Olympic Games in London. I hope I can play in that, although there is also the European Championship next summer. The World Cup was just a dream come true. To win it for your country is the best moment you can experience as a footballer and I hope that one day we can repeat it."
Mata's focus is now on the immediate future, which takes him to Manchester United on Sunday for an early championship pointer and a possible meeting with a boyhood idol. "When I was growing up Ryan Giggs was my inspiration, together with Dennis Bergkamp," he said. "I also had the opportunity to watch videos of Gianfranco Zola, which were very interesting. Giggs is one of the best ever wingers and perhaps I paid more attention to him because he plays in the same position as me. He's incredibly impressive."
Mata admitted to frustration at the dominance of Barcelona and Real Madrid in Spain, but he feels that at Stamford Bridge he is now part of Europe's elite. "Those two clubs have been growing but a number of teams can create problems for them and Chelsea is one," he said. "We're gaining in confidence and little by little, we will improve our results."
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