The Serbian strongman tells FourFourTwo's James Maw about bombs, Benfica and bouncing back to the Bridge...
Having only played 65 minutes for the Blues during his first spell in west London, Nemanja Matic might have taken longer than 60 seconds to choose to return.
THE LONG WAY AROUND
- Jedinstvo Ub 2005-07
- Košice 2007-09
- Chelsea 2009-11
- Vitesse (loan) 2010-11
- Benfica 2011-14
- Chelsea 2014-
After all, three substitute appearances isn’t much to show for 12 months’ work, even if one of those outings was in the game that saw Chelsea seal their most recent Premier League crown.
But things are different now. The Serbian midfielder is bigger, stronger, more experienced and most importantly, a better player. This is his time.
While he was once a wiry youngster – all arms and legs and not much muscle – he’s now an imposing figure. Standing at 6ft 4in and with shoulders as broad as the Shed End, Matic speaks with the rhythmic calm of a soulless Eastern European hitman in a mediocre late-80s action movie.
Yet you get the feeling he wouldn’t hurt a fly – despite having hands the size of dinner plates, his shake is gentle, and he has hardly an ill word to say throughout our chat.
“My agent phoned me and said that Mourinho wanted me to play for Chelsea,” Matic explains to FourFourTwo while zipping up his jacket on what is a disappointingly chilly morning. “I spoke with him for maybe one minute and decided it was a good time for me to come here – Mourinho was one of the big reasons for me coming back.
“The fact it’s my second time here and I knew the club from before also made it easier for me,” he continues. “I know a lot more about the club and the city.”
The other difference this time round is that he now has his wife and three-year-old son with him – not to mention his extended family. “When we have a day off, my family spend time with Branislav Ivanovic, his wife and their three children. I’ve known him for many years and he is a good man.”
Bombed by Uncle Sam
That respect may also be borne of their similar backgrounds. After all, growing up in 1990s Yugoslavia isn’t something a young man will forget in a hurry.
“It wasn’t easy at that time in Yugoslavia, because of the war, but I was very young – I don’t remember much. The worst memory is 1999, when I was 12 or 13, and America sent bombs to our country. This moment was difficult for me because I didn’t understand why it was happening. I asked my father, but he could not explain it to me – this is a moment that will stay with me for all my life.”
The worst memory is 1999, when I was 12 or 13, and America sent bombs to our country. I didn’t understand why it was happening"
The controversial NATO air strikes against his country lasted for nearly three months and were the climax of the Kosovo War, an 18-month conflict that is believed to have left 13,000 dead.
Yet despite growing up in a war zone, Matic has largely fond memories of his youth. After all, he didn’t know any different. “For me, my childhood was a good time – I was at school with my friends, playing football like every other kid,” Matic says with a broad smile.
“I still have good friends from that time – I’m very happy and proud to be from Serbia. Serbia is a nice country, the people are good people and everybody is always welcome there.”
Joking with Jose
Although he doesn’t dodge questions about his background, it’s clear he’d much rather talk football, and the conversation doesn’t often go too long without returning to the subject of a certain Portuguese tactician.
Everybody knows Mourinho's a great manager, but he is also a good man"
The 25-year-old speaks with an almost sombre reverence when ‘the Special One’ is mentioned, but he won’t be the only one at Chelsea to have such deep-rooted respect. After a few upheaval-riddled years in which different factions of the club appeared to be at cross purposes, Jose Mourinho seems to have everyone at Chelsea pulling in the same direction, and striving to be better.
“When I came here Mourinho told me he believed in my quality and he gave me confidence to play my game,” Matic tells FFT.
“Of course, I can improve some things and I want to improve, to learn.
“Everybody knows he’s a great, great manager, but I can say from having worked with him for these few months that he is also a good man. When it is time for a joke, he will joke, but when we have to do our job he is always very serious – he makes sure we do the right things.”
Back to the Bridge
The immediate and significant impact Matic made since returning to Chelsea is a world away from his first stint in West London.
Matic first arrived at Stamford Bridge from Slovakian side MFK Kosice in August 2009 for £1.5m, having spent a week on trial at Middlesbrough 12 months previously. He was arguably Chelsea’s lowest-profile signing of a summer window that had Russian full-back Yuri Zhirkov as its star attraction.
The youngster got off to the worst possible start. A broken metatarsal sustained in a challenge from the infamously minuscule Sebastian Giovinco during an under-21 match against Italy summed up not only Matic’s wretched luck, but also his less-than-sturdy young frame.
With Michael Essien, Frank Lampard, John Obi Mikel and Michael Ballack ahead of him in the queue, Matic was unable to make his mark.
“When I came here before, I was young,” he says. “I also had an injury and was out of training for four months. It wasn’t easy for me – Chelsea had a very strong team at the time and I didn’t have an opportunity to play. After a year, I chose to go on loan to Vitesse in Holland, and I did well.”
Benefiting at Benfica
It still wasn’t enough to convince Carlo Ancelotti he was ready to displace any of the established starters. To make matters worse, in the summer of 2010, Ramires arrived from Benfica to add yet more competition for a midfield berth. Little did Matic know, that move would soon work in his favour.
When Chelsea returned to Benfica the following January, looking to sign wild-haired, wild-spirited defender David Luiz, the Portuguese club demanded Matic as part of the deal. Their midfield was in need of bolstering following Ramires’ departure, and taking the Serb in part-exchange represented good value for money.
“Going to Benfica was a good choice,” Matic insists. “At that time I needed to play so I could improve; Benfica gave me the opportunity to do that.
“I grew as a player, but also as a person. Benfica is one of the biggest clubs in the world – they have six million supporters in Portugal and an incredible history. It was a good experience for me to be there – a nice club, a nice city, a nice country, a good league. For a young player it was a very good place to play, and it was a pleasure to be part of that club – I’ll never forget the people there and the fans.
“I always thought it would be good to have the opportunity to come back to the Premier League, but mostly I was focused on my job, on my club – which was Benfica. I knew I had to work hard, to help the team, to improve myself as a player. You can see the result of that work – I have come back here to Chelsea and I’m now in the team.”
In some ways, the team is built around him. Although he is a defensive midfielder, Matic is no Claude Makelele: he is composed on the ball, with the drive and athleticism to take the game to the opposition. A 35-yard thunderbolt that rattled the woodwork in his second Chelsea debut – February’s 1-0 win at Manchester City – indicated that he’s not a player content with just breaking up play and knocking the ball short.
Going to Benfica was a good choice. I grew as a player, but also as a person"
Mourinho’s decision to deploy two defensive midfielders in that fixture at the Etihad raised almost as many eyebrows as had his decision to cash in on two-time player of the year Juan Mata and use the windfall to re-sign the chirpy Spaniard’s near namesake.
Yet as is often the case, Mourinho has been proven right. Not only have the Blues hardly missed Mata, but the presence of Matic has allowed the Blues’ other attacking players to flourish.
Matic was named man of the match for his part in the victory at City, with his rock-solid performance giving Chelsea a base to build on. It was his running battle with City’s midfield bulldozer Yaya Toure that was most eye-catching, yet shackling the Ivorian wasn’t part of Mourinho’s masterplan.
“Mourinho told me just to play my game,” Matic says. “We did a lot of good preparation in training for that game but he didn’t tell me anything special about Toure, or to take care of him [specifically]. He told us to play our way and believe we could win.
Matic has re-adapted well in Chelsea's polyglot changing room, and hasn't just been holed up in the corner with compatriot Ivanovic. After all, he's spent seven years settling in around Europe, which has its advantages.
“Football is a good school [for learning language]. I lived in Portugal for two-and-a-half years, of course I don’t speak like Portuguese people but I understand everything.
I understand all of the jokes the Brazilians make – they have to be careful what they say around me!"
“This is good for me at Chelsea because, not only is there Mourinho, but also the Brazilian players. I understand all of the jokes they make between them – they have to be careful what they say around me!”
Some things transcend language, and Matic is playing alongside footballers who can leave fans dumbstruck. Take Eden Hazard, who has impressed the Serbian all year long.
“Eden is a great player, and very important for us,” Matic says. “In any moment he can do something good for the team – he can score, he can assist. He is also young and will improve – he has the quality to become one of the very best in the world.
“We have a lot of good players at Chelsea. We are strong in all positions, and that is why it is so good to be part of this team.”
They’ve started this season as the team to beat, streaking away from their title rivals in the Premier League while making steady Champions League progress – including Matic goals which clinched a draw at Maribor and a win back in Portugal at Sporting. But for all the individual accolades and three-point returns, footballing success is measured in trophies, and Matic wants some silverware.
“Of course, winning the Premier League is what everybody at the club wants. I played against Wigan in 2010 when we won 8-0 and won the title. That was a very good feeling, but it’s much better to win when you have played more minutes.
“That’s what I want: to win a title having played in 15 or 20 games, not 15 or 20 minutes.”
Whether Chelsea win the league, we won’t know until May. What we do know is that, wherever they finish, this time Matic won’t be restricted to a brief cameo.
This interview originally featured in the May 2014 issue of FourFourTwo.