Before Giovani Dos Santos will talk about what home means to him, he wants to make sure you first understand where home is.
“I was born in Mexico City,” he says, correcting an error that has followed him throughout his soccer career. “A lot of people think I was born in Monterrey. But I was four years old when I moved there.”
It’s not an inconsequential error. A sense of place can be important to someone like Dos Santos who, at 28, has played for eight teams in four countries and on three continents, eventually landing in Los Angeles with the LA Galaxy in 2015.
Southern California is the closest he’s been to home since leaving for Barcelona’s famed youth academy when he was 11.
“Sometimes when we have two or three days off, if I have time, I go back to my house in Mexico. I feel Mexican. It’s where I was born,” says Dos Santos, who travels with a Spanish passport. “It’s one of the hardest things: to lose your family, your zone of comfort, your friends, you know?”
It’s no wonder our conversation takes place in an airport, where Dos Santos and his Galaxy teammates are waiting for an American Airlines flight to Washington D.C. for an important game with D.C. United.
“Lately it’s been just airports,” says Dos Santos, who travels in his LA Galaxy sweats. Trim and compact at five feet ten and 152 lbs., he has a baby face that, despite his beard, makes him look younger than his age.
Dos Santos lives in Los Angeles with his two dogs, Coco and Bally, a miniature French bulldog. But after this game, his time will be split between the Galaxy and the Mexican national team, with which he’ll also train as part of its preparation for next summer’s World Cup in Russia. Having two home towns in Mexico isn’t such a bad thing, though, because it means you’re always close to one of them. And while Mexico City, where he was born and where his family still lives, is probably the one closest to his heart, it was in Monterrey where his future was born.
Growing Up Soccer
“It was where I started playing soccer,” Dos Santos recalls. “I used to play soccer all day. I went with my friends and brothers in the street in front of my house and we played soccer there the whole day. Or until we got tired.”
There was little doubt that “Gio,” as he’s known, and brothers Eder and Jonathan, would gravitate toward the sport. Their Brazilian-born father Geraldo played under the name Zizinho during an 11-year professional career that ended in Monterrey and his three sons followed in his footsteps, with Eder joining a Mexican reserve team and Jonathan going on to play in Spain and the Mexican national team.
“I remember watching my father play,” Giovani Dos Santos says. “It was a pretty good time in my life. And I really like the food in Monterrey. It’s one of the best cities in terms of gastronomy,” he adds (although his own diet is strict: chicken, fish and zero carbs, except the day before a match).
But as good as Geraldo Dos Santos was on the field, it was obvious from a young age that Giovani, his middle son, would be better. He was a prodigy whose reputation quickly reached across the ocean to Spain. So Barcelona, which a few years earlier had invited a young Lionel Messi to join its famed youth academy, eagerly welcomed Dos Santos to soccer’s most prestigious finishing school in 2002, while he was still in grade school.
Three years later he would lead Mexico to a U-17 World Cup title, the country’s first major international prize in soccer. Dos Santos was named the second-best player in the tournament.
Suddenly he was in high demand and like a rare jewel he passed quickly through many clubs, going from Barcelona to Tottenham and Ipswich Town in England, on to Turkish giant Galatasaray and eventually back to Spain to play for Racing Santander, Mallorca and Villarreal.
Ironically, one of the few leagues he’s never played in is the Mexican one.
“Of course it’s a sacrifice,” he says. “As an athlete sometimes you have to make sacrifices. You never know what might happen in the future. I would like someday to play in my country.”
A Global Star
Internationally, Dos Santos has participated in two senior World Cups and won an Olympic gold medal, Mexico’s first in soccer, in 2012. Now, he’s one of many veterans on the team expected to play in next summer’s tournament in Russia, where Mexico could field the deepest squad in the country’s long soccer history.
“I don’t know if it’s the best team ever but I think this is one of the best generations in Mexico,” Dos Santos says. “We have a lot of quality, a lot of players playing at the highest level. Everyone is at the top of their career right now and we have to take advantage of that.”
The Galaxy had followed Dos Santos’ itinerant career with interest, believing that a Mexican national team star would be a big hit in Southern California, home to more than 6 million of his countrymen. It would be four years before their patience and persistence was rewarded, however, with Dos Santos finally agreeing to join the Galaxy and Major League Soccer in 2015.
It was a significant move for both the team and the league, which had developed a reputation as a retirement home for aging European stars.
“He not only is a player that was playing in some of the highest leagues in Europe but a player in the prime of his career that made a decision to come to MLS,” says Galaxy President Chris Klein, a former U.S. national team midfielder. “Beyond that, with the city of L.A. and the cultural makeup of our city and the changing makeup of our country, having a star Mexican player come and play in our league is very important.”
Home in Los Angeles
And Dos Santos has embraced that importance. While in the past he was sometimes criticized for lacking devotion at some of his European stops, he’s become an unquestioned team leader with the Galaxy.
“We’ve seen a real transformation and maturation in Gio,” Klein says. “Really, with this year, you’re seeing a true professional that our young players can look up to. He is the first one in and the last one to leave. His approach toward his profession is impressive.”
Dos Santos begins his days between 6 and 7 a.m. every morning, is at the StubHub Center by 8:30 and trains with the team at 10. He then hits the gym and gets additional treatments. He never leaves the stadium before mid afternoon. Prior to any match, he stretches, prays, listens to his music (and dances a bit), and goes for the kill.
In fact, Dos Santos has fit in quickly both on and off the field. He picked up a goal and an assist in his first start, then led the team in both categories in his first full season. In the community, he’s partnered with Children’s Hospital Los Angeles to raise money and awareness, helped build a futsal court for kids at a school in Santa Ana -- a heavily Mexican city about 25 miles south of the Galaxy’s stadium -- and staged a summer camp for youth in the shadow of the L.A. airport.
“I feel like it’s my second home,” Dos Santos says of Los Angeles. “There’s a lot of Mexican people here. My family is closer.
“The thing I miss from Mexico is my family. And the food, of course.”
His favorite dish? Tacos, naturally. But only in the off-season.