Dos Santos was a key part of the country’s U-17 World Cup win that year in Peru and was named the tournament’s second best player. He was only 16, was already working his way nicely through Barcelona’s La Masia academy and there was talk about Dos Santos becoming the next Ronaldinho. The Monterrey-born player was even half Brazilian, smiled a lot and played with a similar nonchalant attitude.
Dos Santos was tipped for a big career. For a country that has produced relatively few absolute top-class players, he became a source of hope.
But since those heady early days, as has been well publicized, Dos Santos has failed to live up to the billing, bar the occasional moment of genius, like his goal and performance in the 2011 Gold Cup final.
The move to join Juande Ramos at Tottenham Hotspur was disastrous in hindsight, but his high-profile relationship with a Mexican pop singer and constant stories about how Dos Santos was living off the pitch hampered his reputation. Loan moves to clubs as distant as Ipswich and Galatasaray were puzzling. Dos Santos’ career seemed to be slipping through his fingers.
That changed with his transfer to Real Mallorca in August 2012 and most notably following his permanent move to Villarreal in July 2013. But it wasn’t just the change of scenery that did the trick.
Manager Marcelino Garcia Toral said straight away that he wanted to play Dos Santos in a central role.
“I believe I know where the position he can give most is and in which he feels most comfortable,” said Garcia Toral in a news conference. “Giovani is a second striker or a (No.) 9 if you play very defensively.”
Before that, nobody really seemed to know how best to use dos Santos. He played more regularly out wide for the Mexican national team and infamously got completely lost in the right midfield position of Jose Manuel de la Torre’s 4-4-2 in that first qualifier of 2013 against Jamaica and was taken off at halftime.
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The combination of a new team and fixed position, mixed with a healthy dose of maturity, has seen Dos Santos grow in confidence.
That could be seen in last Friday’s match against Cameroon, which was arguably his best in a Mexico shirt, wedding his natural flair with goal-scoring touch (even if his two first-half goals were ruled out) and, most tellingly, a workrate that saw him press the African side’s defense and win back the ball high up the field on more than one occasion.
“It is true that in this (World Cup) what has changed is that I’ve improved physically, with more experience, more rhythm, more consistency and more confidence,” he told reporters after El Tri’s final warm-up game in Mexico against Israel.
In the preparation matches, Dos Santos edged Javier Hernandez out of the team and no one protested, especially after a Cameroon game in which he was widely considered to be the man of the match.
On Tuesday, Dos Santos — who has a Portuguese last name — goes up against his father’s home country. It is the biggest game of his career.
“I have family (in Brazil), my father is Brazilian, so I have a lot of Brazilian friends and being there is always special,” Dos Santos said before the World Cup.
There have been a couple of false dawns in Dos Santos’ career, but it finally looks as though he is ready to break through in a major way. Doing something special against a nation he could’ve represented on the biggest stage would be the perfect setting to confirm that.