Nemanja Matic could be forgiven for feeling frustrated. Manchester United’s unbeaten run has stalled at 11 games after a resurgence largely featuring his presence in midfield. . He lists United’s last league game – the 2-0 derby win against City – as a highlight of his Old Trafford career.

“I cannot say I didn’t enjoy this month at home,” he says via video link. “Normally when we’re playing, we travel a lot. We’re away every two or three days. It’s been nice to spend time with the kids.” Off the pitch, Matic talks like he plays: measured, pragmatic and to the point.

The Serbia midfielder is taking part in a live Instagram Q&A session with Football Beyond Borders, fielding questions from young people about his storied career. Matic first met the charity’s co-director Jasper Kain at an event in Manchester with a former United teammate Chris Smalling – and found a cause close to his heart.

“When I hear the kids’ stories, some of them have difficult lives,” Matic says. “That stays in my heart, because I know what they’re going through. The charity gives them the chance to find success, to make their lives easier. In my village in Serbia we were poor but I was happy. Every day we would be outside playing football. We had more freedom than kids today.”

Matic grew up in Vrelo, 40 miles south-west of Belgrade. As a promising attacking midfielder he idolised Zinedine Zidane but did not have a TV at home to watch games. “I would collect newspaper clippings just to read about him, and the put the pictures up in my room.” Some of Matic’s friends still play for the local team. “They just got promoted to the fourth division, so now they have to train harder,” he says.

The virtues of hard work and perseverance are what Matic wants to get across to his young audience. “Follow your dreams. Never give up … I’ve had a lot of doubters in my career, people who didn’t believe in me.” As a teenager he was rejected by both Belgrade clubs, Red Star and Partizan. “I knew I was good enough, and one day I would prove them wrong, show them they made a mistake. And that’s exactly what I did.”

Matic found his feet at the Slovakian club Kosice, earning his first move to Chelsea in 2009. He was quickly sent out on loan to Vitesse, then used as a makeweight in the club’s move for the Benfica defender David Luiz. In Portugal he was reshaped into a defensive midfielder by the coach Jorge Jesus. “He said if I listened to him and trained every day, I could be one of the best in the world. Benfica changed my life.”

Matic, now 31, learned the new position, and also how to thrive at a superclub. One young fan asks if he still feels pressure.“When I was younger I felt a lot of pressure, seeing 70,000 people in the stadium. Now, if the fans sing my name, I just feel more motivation to run, to kick people … just kidding. I don’t do that on purpose.”

Matic was brought back to Chelsea in 2014 by Mourinho, the manager he would later follow to United. He is asked whether the Portuguese lives up to his combative public persona. “It depends. If you win, he’s the best guy ever. But if you lose, you’re hiding from him at the training ground. But he’s an amazing coach.”

Matic holds back only when discussing his surprise second departure from Stamford Bridge, where he won titles playing for Mourinho and Antonio Conte. “I was very happy at Chelsea, but I thought it was the right moment to change club. There were reasons which are hard for me to say now. I will never forget my time there, but I’m a Manchester United player now.”

Matic has high praise for his manager, Ole Gunnar Solskjær. “Ole is a great manager. I think he has improved a lot since he came to United, and he is different now. I’m sure he has a great future here, and he will win us trophies.”

Another question flies in: who is his favourite teammate? Matic tackles it with trademark lack of fuss. “There is not one guy who is not a good person in our changing room. I’m 31 now, and some of the players are 10 years younger than me. I speak more to players my own age, like Paul [Pogba], David [de Gea] and Juan [Mata], but I set next to Mason Greenwood in the dressing room, so we’ve got to know each other too.”

Matic has also been impressed by United’s new recruit, Bruno Fernandes. “Because I follow the Portuguese league, I knew he was good – even though he played for Sporting! But I’m very surprised he adapted so quickly to the Premier League. He brings us a lot of qualities, like the confidence he has on the pitch – he always knows what he wants to do with the ball.”

Asked to name United’s best player, Matic does not hesitate. “We have a lot of young players, but they have maybe not reached their top yet, but Marcus Rashford has the ability to be one of the best players in the world in his position. He’s still improving, but he has everything to reach that top level.”

Matic’s work ethic has taken him a long way. “I wake up early. I never stay up late. Get up, train, eat, sleep. Even on holiday, by the end of the week I need to train. Football is my life; I take it very seriously. I’ve felt like a professional player since I was five years old. I don’t know how to be any different.”

Football Beyond Borders (FBB) uses the power of football to educate and inspire young people across the UK. Check out their virtual school on Instagram and visit its website.

Source Article