Juan Mata, a former Manchester United player, will select an international squad of football’s most creative talents to collaborate with leading artists to celebrate the beautiful game.
The World Cup winner is assembling 11 players to collaborate on artworks that pay homage to “artists on the pitch”.
This summer, Mata will launch the project with performance artist Tino Sehgal in Manchester.
It will culminate in 2025 with a major exhibition in the city.
The Spanish midfielder expressed excitement about “coming home” and assembling a team of playmakers he admires for the Manchester International Festival (MIF).
“From my perspective, it was all about trying to recognize players from the present and past,” Mata, who now plays for Galatasaray in Turkey, told BBC News.
“In my mind, they appear to be artists on the pitch. When you watch a player, you can tell he or she is different by the way he or she moves and touches the ball.”
Eric Cantona, Dennis Bergkamp, and Roberto Baggio are among the players the 34-year-old hopes to sign.
The Trequartista: Art and Football Unite is the title of the project. The trequartista, also known as the “number 10” by modern UK football fans, is frequently the most creative player on the field.
“So many of the players I admired as a kid used to play that position, and they usually played with a lot of talent [so] that they could make a difference in the game,” Mata explained.
He played the role for United, Chelsea, and Valencia and claimed that modern football had “evolved into a different kind of pace,” implying that such free-roaming attacking players were becoming extinct.
“I think we’re seeing less and less of that position,” he said. “So this exhibition is all about trying to keep the conversation going about these kinds of players who were making a difference on the pitch, and many of them were kind of rebels, in a way.
“They have a certain personality, a certain character that has made them heroes for many people, and it’s very nice for us to bring them back into the conversation of football today.”
Mata’s collaboration with Berlin-based Sehgal is called This Entry and is described as “a playful choreographic exchange between a footballer, violinist, cyclist and singing dancer”.
During this year’s festival, it will be on display at the National Football Museum and the Whitworth art gallery, with the full 11 artworks to be shown at the next MIF in 2025.
The concept arose during what co-curator Hans Ulrich Obrist described as a “wonderful conversation” between himself and Mata at the previous MIF in 2021.
They discussed “bringing art and football together,” and “then the idea grew” from there. Now he is “excited” to help bring about “a dialogue” between the two disciplines.
“To engage with Manchester through football is pretty fundamental,” MIF artistic director John McGrath said. And it’s something Hans and I have often discussed doing, so when Juan came along to see the poet-artist exhibition [in 2021] and that conversation began, it felt like a real gift.”
Mata is an art enthusiast who has also led efforts to encourage players to donate to charity.
Gary Neville, another former United player, serves on the board of the arts festival.
The project was unveiled on Tuesday, along with the complete lineup for this year’s festival, which runs from June 26 to July 16.
In other news, Maxine Peake will star in a play based on the rediscovered 1977 dystopian novel They, and artist Ryan Gander will mint 200,000 coins to be hidden throughout Manchester.
The festival’s flagship £211 million venue, Factory International, will open with an exhibition of inflatable polka-dot sculptures by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama.
Other highlights include performances by Janelle Monae, John Grant, and Angelique Kidjo as well as a mixed reality concert by Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto.