Millions of children around the world share a common dream: to make it as a footballer. However, to achieve that goal there are innumerable obstacles that must first be overcome, with the need for abundant talent, dedication, discipline and an ability to seize your opportunities all combining to ensure that only a handful of those hopeful youngsters make their dream come true.
What is more, reaching the elite is not the final step with plenty more hard work and fortitude required to stay there and thrive. And certain footballers, even when blessed with all the right qualities to succeed, have another enemy in their path: bad luck that seemingly follows them at every turn.
That appeared to be the case for Jonathan Dos Santos, who faced repeated misfortunes during the early years of his career. But where there is poison there is usually an antidote, and the Mexican international has found his, in the shape of “hard work and patience”.
Perfect conditions, difficult circumstances
“It’s hard to find anyone in football who’s been as unlucky as me!” said the 25-year-old, good-humouredly, in conversation with FIFA.com. “Of course I had a lot of circumstances in my favour: my club, my family… and that ensured that I never lost my belief, but I did sometimes wonder why these things were always happening to me.”
Indeed, just a few years ago, Jonathan Dos Santos was considered one of the most promising gems to be emerging from Barcelona’s famed youth system. Boasting exquisite technique and vision, the central midfielder seemed ideally suited to succeed alongside the likes of Xavi and Andres Iniesta.
Yet every time he was on the verge of the next big step forward, destiny appeared to intervene to halt his progress. The first body blow was being cut last-minute from the Mexico squad preparing for qualification for the FIFA U-17 World Cup Korea 2007.
Crueller still was his exit from the senior squad on the eve of the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, when Dos Santos was the very last player to be cut prior to the El Tri delegation’s departure for African soil. How about Brazil 2014, you ask? He was ruled out through injury.
“It was very tough,” recalled the gifted schemer, on those experiences. “I had the advantage of still being young, but if the same thing happened to me again now I don’t know how I’d handle it. I had to be really patient and draw on the help of my family, friends, colleagues…”
Said injury, torn right-knee ligaments, not only denied him his first World Cup appearance, but also helped usher him towards an exit at Barça – at a time when his path to first-team football was beginning to clear. “I was part of the plans of [then coach] Tata Martino when it happened,” he said, a tinge of bitterness evident in his voice. “Unfortunately these things happen in football, but it’s not something I’d wish on any player.”
Against the odds, it was at that point that Dos Santos’ star began to rise once more. Drawn to his class and pedigree, Villarreal put their faith in him and, two years and 39 games later, things could barely be going better. “I knew I had to go to a team that played a similar style to Barcelona,” he said.
“Even so, when I first arrived I was only just coming back from the injury and, to be honest, it was very tough. The ball would come to me and I didn’t know what to do with it! But by staying strong mentally you get used to new surroundings, and I’m happy now.”
His fine form has contributed to a sparkling campaign from El Submarino Amarillo, which in turn has enabled Jona to set the bar even higher – in both collective and individual terms. “We’re fourth in the league, in the Round of 16 in the Europa League, and we want more,” he vowed.
“In my case, when I left Barcelona I told my parents that I’d set myself a target of no more than two years to consolidate myself and move to an elite European club. Villarreal has been a shop window for so many players, and I want to keep making the absolute most of this opportunity.”
Another opportunity Jona is determined to seize is with the Mexican national team. An El Tri regular once more, with 18 caps now to his name and having played a key role in victory in the 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup, the midfielder still does not enjoy the level of recognition of many of his national-team fellows.
“I’m not sure why I’m not talked about so much, maybe I’ll have to score in every game now!” he said, with a chuckle. “It’s perhaps down to my position that my impact is not reflected in the stats. I’m happy to get recognition for the work I put in, but the fact that my club believes in me is enough for my peace of mind.”
Work and belief are key themes here, with Dos Santos aware that recognition will come in due time, and nor is he worried by constant comparisons with his older brother Giovani. “I always modelled myself on him, he’s my example to follow,” he revealed.
“It’s also something that spurs me on. When people used to say ‘that’s Giovani’s brother’, I’d think ‘I’m going to change that, whatever it takes’. And now, through hard work, through effort, they know me as Jonathan – in fact now they say that he is ‘Jonathan’s brother’!” he added, with a peal of laughter.
Currently recovering from a muscular injury that is threatening to keep him out of Mexico’s next Russia 2018 qualifier, against Canada on 29 March - his run of bad luck not having disappeared forever it seems – Dos Santos rounds off our conversation by underlining his full confidence in this El Tri squad. “This is the ‘good generation’. We’ve got more and more players in Europe, this is the best crop of Mexican players in history. This national squad can achieve big things.”