Why former Barcelona wonderkid Giovani dos Santos failed to become a superstar

When looking at Giovani dos Santos, everyone agrees he has talent. When looking at Dos Santos’ career in Europe, everyone agrees he couldn’t get the most out of that talent.

“Based on his quality, he has come up short,” Jesus Ramirez, who coached Dos Santos at the 2005 FIFA U-17 World Championship, told El Pais before the 2018 World Cup. “It was impressive what he and (Carlos) Vela did. His potential is high but I think he has held it back a bit.”

With his two most high-profile former employers meeting, one can’t help but wonder why he never could harness his full potential. How did this player, who already was in Barcelona’s famed La Masia academy when he won the Silver Ball for second-best player while helping Mexico to the U-17 title, not break through?

Dos Santos never found any consistency in Europe. After a year with Barcelona, he played in the Premier League, the Championship, the Turkish Super Lig and three different Spanish teams before, at age 26, he decided to return to North America. His signing with the LA Galaxy was a coup for Major League Soccer but represented a premature end to his European career.

Whether that consistency was his fault or the clubs’ is up for some debate. It’s difficult to find a place for a player on the field when you’re not sure where to put him. Dos Santos plays best as a second striker, but many of his clubs have needed something else out of him. That has led to time as a playmaker, where there are moments of magic but infrequent chance creation, as an inverted winger, where Dos Santos often floats too far inside to look for the ball or to set up a chance for himself, or with the left-footer playing in his natural profile on the left side, where he often fails to make an impact.

Former Barca boss Frank Rijkaard actually gave Dos Santos opportunities, with the 19-year-old playing more than 1,000 La Liga minutes for the Blaugrana in 2007-08. It was there that the positional issues first emerged, with Gio too often looking to come inside to space where Lionel Messi already was operating. Ultimately, Dos Santos was outdone by Bojan Krkic. Dos Santos’ fellow academy graduate set a club record with 10 goals in his debut season with the first team, making Dos Santos expendable. A €5 million offer from Spurs was too good for Barca to pass up, and Dos Santos was on his way to London. He arrived the same summer as Luka Modric, moving out of Bojan’s shadow but into the one of a player who would eventually be named The Best.

Another potential derailment had emerged at Barcelona. Dos Santos’ commitment to the sport often has come into question. Deserved or not, Dos Santos had a reputation for enjoying the nightlife wherever he played. Paparazzi in Barcelona and London snapped him at nightclubs, and the label has stuck. After he went for a header that Agustin Marchesin claimed in the first leg of a 2016 Concacaf Champions League match, the then-Santos Laguna goalkeeper called Dos Santos a drunk and gestured as though he was drinking from a bottle. That prompted fans in Torreon to chant “Drunk” at Dos Santos in the return match.

His motivation often has been questioned. Between the partying and the decision to go to MLS rather than continuing on with Villarreal, Mexican fans held a very high standard for Dos Santos that he never was able to reach. The move to MLS was judged harshly. Dos Santos shined for relegation-bound Mallorca in 2012-13, then played back-to-back seasons with the Yellow Submarine. It was the first time in his career he played consecutive seasons with the same club, but he still jumped back across the Atlantic. 

The club struggles came in contrast to many of his moments with the Mexico national team. From 2005 on, Dos Santos has been there for El Tri time and time again. There was his incredible goal in the 2011 Gold Cup final, in which he stymied Howard with five quick touches in the box and used his sixth to send a perfect chip into the top corner of the net. He scored three times in the 2012 Olympics, helping Mexico to the gold. Gio has three Gold Cup titles to his name and was named Most Valuable Player of the 2009 edition.

Even with those triumphs for his country, fans in Mexico have been hesitant to embrace him. If a ‘what have you done for me lately’ mentality is employed, the frustration is understandable. Coach Juan Carlos Osorio ran into many of the tactical issues with using Dos Santos that the club managers did before him and Dos Santos’ best days for the national team seem to be behind him, even though the 29-year-old should have enough in his legs to push for a spot on Mexico’s 2022 World Cup roster.

There may yet be a happy ending for Dos Santos. The bad news is that the Galaxy are stuck in a playoff race after another disappointing season and Dos Santos is nowhere near the kind of stage Wednesday’s Barca-Spurs match presents. He was voted most overrated player in a survey of current MLS players. Currently, he’s injured. Even so, he seems happy.

When Goal spoke with Dos Santos earlier this year, he talked about reading books to help him think positively and about spending time with family rather than going out on the town in LA. He loves the NBA, and will likely enjoy several games in person this season (though Carlos Vela beat him to the punch and looks to have converted LeBron James into an LAFC fan). Dos Santos may never have turned into the superstar it looked like he would, but he’s OK with that.

“If I take myself back to the moment of making the decision and if in that moment they’d have called from the teams you mentioned, I’d have chosen Galaxy,” he told ESPN Mexico in April when asked if he should have returned to Spurs or moved to a bigger Spanish club instead of heading to LA. “I’m happy with the decision I’ve taken. I get up in the morning and I’m happy and that is what is important for me in the end. I greet my family, my brothers, my parents. Me being happy doesn’t have a price.”

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