In early March, MLS club LA Galaxy faced a conundrum with their squad of players. The somewhat convoluted rules governing the league state that each club can only have three players whose “total compensation and acquisition costs exceed the Maximum Salary Budget Charge.” Now, you can debate the finer points of semantics circulating around that collection of words for a while if you like, but the upshot was that given they had four players to whom that restriction related, one of them would have to go. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Romain Alessandrini, and Jonathan dos Santos, the younger brother of Giovani, were all considered to have secure futures with the club. It was, therefore, the elder of the dos Santos brothers that was pointed towards the exit door, albeit with the comfort of a fully paid-up contract to ease the blow.
For a player who, just over a decade ago, was named by World Soccer Magazine as one of the “Top 50 Most Exciting Teen Footballers” to now be discarded (and no disrespect to the MLS in particular) by a club hardly ranked as particularly high in the global scheme of things, may well be hard to take. Especially as having your younger brother favoured above you is like being on the sticky end of a particularly harsh, even if unintended fraternal one-upmanship. It raises the question as to where did it all go wrong for the Mexican forward. Is it a case of a prodigy unfulfilled, or that the initial hope for a Barcelona starlet was merely a triumph of hype over reasonable expectation?
After a stellar period coming through the ranks at the Camp Nou, Giovani dos Santos made his league debut on 2 September 2007 as a substitute during a 3–1 home win against Athletic Bilbao. He was 18 years old and full of promise. Less than a year later though, he would swap Catalonia for North London as new Spurs manager, Juande Ramos, persuaded the starlet that more game time would be gained in the English league than by competing for a place in the star-studded Barcelona team. The reality was hardly favourable for manager or player.
Ramos moved on after a disappointing period, while his recruit who had inspired him to join the club still remained at White Hart Lane. As well as the potential of greater game time, a move to London may well have held out other attractions for the young Mexican. When Harry Redknapp took over at White Hart Lane, an irritation about the player’s penchant for night clubs and tardiness when attending training was bound to cause friction, despite Redknapp offering assurances that there was a place for dos Santos at the club. Such assurance transpired to be the sort of ‘vote of confidence’ managers often receive a couple of days before their P45 lands on their doormat. After a dozen first team games and a single goal across all competitions, in March 2009, dos Santos was exiled to the much more sedate environment of Suffolk, and a loan move to Ipswich Town until the end of the season.
Although he achieved a short-lived hero status at Portman Road, by scoring twice in the East Anglian Derby against Norwich City, and contributing to a 3-2 win. His time with the Tractor Boys was very much ploughing a lone furrow, and after a reasonable return of four goals in eight games, he returned to North London By now, however, despite suggestions by the manager to the contrary, it was clear that there was little future for him at Spurs. By January the following year, he had made a mere three first-team appearances, only one of which was in the league, and a loan move to Turkish club Galatasaray, until the end of the season at least offered a chance to play. He would indeed play, but not score. Eighteen games in Turkey brought not a single strike and the inevitable return to Spurs at the end of the term for a player whose confidence levels must now have been plummeting.
A similar pattern followed in the 2010-11 season. An abortive time flirting with the Spurs first team, saw five appearances without a goal, before another loan spell, this time back in Spain with Racing Santander at least brought a semblance of a return to form with five goals in 16 appearances. It may have been that the potential of a rejuvenated dos Santos that persuaded Redknapp to reintroduce the forward to his plans for the 2011-12 season. If so, it would hardly have been considered a roaring success. At the end of the term, he had played 13 games scoring just twice. It was the end of the road.
By now, the Mexican’s agent had been making noises for some time – something that would hardly be conducive to success at White Hart Lane – that dos Santos wanted a move during the summer of 2013, otherwise he would sit out the following season there and walk away on a free transfer. Voicing what always seemed as exaggerated claims of interest from Inter Milan and Atlético Madrid, it was eventually, the more tranquil waters of Mallorca where the forward would next be given the opportunity to flourish with a four-year deal. Donning the number nine shirt for Los Bermellones he would become a regular in the team with 32 appearances. His six goals would also make him the club’s top marksman, but the paltry total also tells a story. The island club was relegated, and another move soon followed.
His six strikes with Mallorca had been his most prolific to date, but he would surpass that with his new club, Villareal, particularly in his first team. Eleven goals in 32 league games was a major contribution to the club’s relative La Liga success, leading to a creditable sixth place finish. For both club and player, however, the success was unsustainable, and the following term his 26 league appearances brought a single goal, and when LA Galaxy offered a reported $7 million to sign the Mexican, the deal was quickly concluded.
Back on continental America, dos Santos clearly felt more at home and enjoyed a successful period with the Los Angeles club, being awarded membership of the MLS All-Star selections in both 2016 and 2017, and appearing on the cover of the US version on the FIFA 16 and FIFA 17 computer games. In total, he would score 29 goals in 88 appearances for the Galaxy, but as is inevitably the case with galaxies, they contain a lot of stars, and in early March, this excess of luminaries, meant an exit for dos Santos.
Success on the international stage for El Tri was much less debatable. Olympic Gold in 2012, and CONCACAF Gold Cup triumphs in 2009, 2011 and 2015, together with a total of 19 goals and a shade over a century of caps, speak of more than reasonable success. It’s perhaps interesting to note, however, that every one of the dos Santos strikes for Mexico have come when playing in North, Central or South America.
What then is the conclusion of a career that promised so much, but delivered relatively little, especially in club terms. Hindsight is a wonderful prism for reviewing decisions that may not have worked out, but perhaps the one to leave the familiar surroundings of the Camp Nou for North London may not have been particularly wise. Incoming manager at the time, a certain Pep Guardiola, was hardly averse to giving young talent its head, and who knows how things may have turned out if the Mexican had stayed in the Catalan capital. At 29, however, it’s perhaps sad to reflect that despite an entirely reasonable and surely financially rewarding career to date, walking out of an MLS club with a cheque banked for a paid-up contract may not have been the precise dream of a young Mexican footballer breaking into the Blaugrana first team, and prompted by so many as a star of the future.