He may be only sixteen, but you have to look at him close-up to remind yourself that Giovani Dos Santos is still an adolescent. His round face and sparkling eyes are perhaps the last traces of his childhood, as in terms of his play and attitude, the Mexican is every inch the battle-hardened professional.
After the Tricolores' training session on 27th September, the atmosphere at Chiclayo's Elias Aguirre stadium was upbeat. But as the media buzzed around the players, two were commanding particular attention. Carlos Vela, the forward with the face of an angel, and Giovani Dos Santos, the playmaker with the distinctive ponytail. On the eve of the semi-final of the FIFA U-17 World Championship Peru 2005, the Mexican camp could scarcely have been more relaxed, with everyone perfectly happy to talk to the press.
Already seemingly an old hand, Dos Santos slips seamlessly from one interview to another. When asked to mime a few playing moves for the camera, he does so without embarrassment. For this is a lad who has already been at Barcelona for four years, so media attention is nothing new to him.
"It was hard at first as I missed my family, and I had to get used to the food and to Spanish culture. But now my family is with me and it's a lot easier," he reveals to FIFA.com. To provide him with support, his father, Zizinho, a Brazilian and a former professional, accompanies him everywhere. He is with him in Peru for this tournament, but Dos Santos is at pains to point out that he is far from dependent on him. "He doesn't give me advice. He just tells me after games what I did well and what I did badly, that's all," he declares firmly.
Already, some of Europe's top clubs are monitoring his progress. "I've no intention of changing club as I'm happy at Barcelona, but it's flattering to know that I interest the likes of Manchester United and Arsenal." Behind the scenes, his father takes care of such matters. "I don't want my boy to be distracted by all that as he's got enough on his plate with this tournament," Zizinho told the Mexican press recently.
If truth be told, his father's presence seems altogether natural. "He doesn't put any pressure on me. He's always been my coach, so having him close by is normal for me." And this is clearly one dad who knows how to nurture his children, as Giovani's younger brother, Jonathan, is also on the books at Barcelona. "It would be great to play together one day for the national side. I hope we get the chance to do that," the youngster muses, before adding with a smile: "he's a midfielder and I'm a striker, so he'll have to keep passing to me, which would be pretty funny!"
"I can't wait to get stuck in"
Despite his father being Brazilian and an ex-professional with various Mexican clubs, the possibility of playing Brazil in the final holds no special significance for him. "Honestly, that doesn't really make any difference to me. I was born in Mexico and I'm Mexican, but like any player I suppose, beating Brazil in the final of a world event would make me tremendously proud…"
Before any more talk of Brazil, however, the Netherlands must first be overcome, and the youngster is well aware that this tie is no foregone conclusion. "They're a very strong, quick team and we'll have to be at our best to keep them out. We know what we have to do," he asserts. To indicate his confidence, he quickly adds: I feel good, relaxed and happy to be here. I can't wait to get stuck into this semi-final."
On the field, Dos Santos performs a typical playmaker's role, dictating the pace of the game and supplying the chief goalscorer, Carlos Vela. Being the side's youngest player is quite clearly not a problem for him, and on account of his nonchalant air and powerful thighs, the comparisons with his clubmate Ronaldinho have already been drawn. Being likened to the Brazilian clearly pleases him: "I don't know how they can compare me to him: I'm only just starting out, I've still got a long way to go."
Self-assured, but not bigheaded: that is Giovani. And like a seasoned professional, he does a good line in diplomacy. "I don't see my role in the team as more important than anyone else's. Everyone knows precisely what they have to do, which is the secret of our success." Each phrase is weighed carefully and repeated for the Mexican journalists who, sensing an historic achievement, are now tracking the team's every move.
But Dos Santos is far from being the sole architect of El Tri's success. This Mexican side boasts a wealth of exciting talent. Does he dream of them all winning a FIFA World CupTM together one day? "Why not, you never know. But for now, we're focusing on this tournament. After that, we'll probably come together again in the youth side, but we have to take it one stage at a time." The boy is not getting carried away... An old head on young shoulders, you might say.
But when the subject of his homeland is mentioned, his eyes at last light up, revealing a glimpse of the child within this mature exterior. "It makes us really proud when the folks back home are interested in us," he admits with a beaming smile. But his calm demeanour is quickly restored. "The fact that there's so much interest is a mark of what a good job we're doing." Then, with a firm handshake and a muchas gracias!, Dos Santos departs with a smile…to give another interview!