24 September 2008


Last night’s 6-0 by Arsenal’s latest teen XI was led by Mexican prodigy Carlos Vela. Here’s a piece I wrote a few years back about his compatriot Giovani dos Santos when the pair were but twinkles in their North London suitors’ eyes (the titular latter now finding himself at Arsenal’s local-ish rivals, Tottenham)…

The final whistle has gone, and most of the crowd has already herded out to engage the city’s legendary traffic, but a determined knot remains, braving the night air to watch three players warm down. Which players in the modern game might inspire such loyalty, such obsession? Whose magic touches might they be crooning over - Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, Scholes? Zidane, Robinho, (the other) Ronaldo? Kaka, Shevchenko, Pirlo? Try dos Santos, dos Santos and dos Santos - this is the post match scene at the Elias Aguírre stadium in Peru where Mexico have just run out 4-0 winners over the Netherlands in the semi final of the World Cup. The Under 17 World Cup, that is.

And it was one of these three youths - brothers Jonathan, Giovani and Eder - who was instrumental in that result.

Of the three, it is the middle brother, Giovani (Gio to you and me), whose ball skills draw gasps from the transfixed stay-behinds. Performances like tonight's in Peru have had the Mexican press labeling him (with characteristic understatement) "Ronaldinho Junior".

But it doesn't take (insert your preferred footballing genius here - Rinus Michels? Graeme Le Saux?) to see why the sixteen year old has earned comparisons with last season's FIFA player of the year. With the thighs to explode past players and remarkable awareness for one so young, like the Brazil and Barcelona number 10, his game modulates between delightful nonchalance and intense joy. Gio, despite being the youngest player in the Mexico squad, is given full playmaking responsibilities, and thrives on it. Against the Netherlands, he sets up each of Mexico´s quite different four goals.

He even looks somewhat Ronaldinhian - with ringleted, oiled hair and buck teeth (although he has emerged young enough for the braces clamped over his immovable grin to not be entirely ridiculous.) Not to mention the Nike boots on his feet and sponsorship wad in his pocket. But the comparisons run deeper than orthodontry and unchecked hype, there was something peculiarly Brazilian in the way he pulled the Netherlands apart, an insouciance in the step, a demonic playfulness in the one-twos. The dreamy-eyed among us began to see barrio sand burst around his heels as he made space and time to play through-balls. And the story is the same throughout the tournament: Mexico score a competition high number of goals – 16; number of Gio assists – eleven; number of journalists and fans with that metallic smile etched in their memories…

The similarities go on. Both Ronaldinho 'senior' and Gio happen to be on a certain Barcelona F.C's books. Demonstrating the far-sightedness that has seen them enrol Argentinian starlet Leonel Messi (the leading light of this year's Under 20 World Cup), scouts deployed by the Catalan club spotted Gio at a tournament in France when he was just 12, and snapped up his budding services there and then. The Spanish press is awash with cries of foul paper shuffling over Messi, after he was brought on as a sub against Real Zaragoza, allegedly contravening La Liga's 3 non EU players limit. His E.U naturalization, it is claimed, has been fast-tracked . And Gio's profile is already such that he promptly came out saying he would be sure to get his papers in order before playing first team football. In fact, he appears a dab hand at jinking through the press; he recently told a Catalan radio station that he had no interest in playing for the clubs reported to be dangling expensive carrots, the likes of Man Utd, Arsenal, and, to a chorus of Catalan olé!, that he couldn't care less about the overtures of arch rival Real Madrid.

This composure in the limelight is also apparent on the pitch. Again, as with Ronaldinho senior, there is an unselfish streak, an ability to see that despite having a powerful shot, he is not necessarily the best option. It also helps having a more direct, one-track foil – last season's second top scorer in La Liga, Samuel Eto'o at Barcelona, and the pichichi (golden boot) in the U17 tournament, 17-year old marksman Carlos Vela. Although Gio didn't score in the tournament, when he does, he performs a little samba dance. This is a homage to his father, Gerardo dos Santos, whose nom de jouer was Zizinho… You guessed it, all this Brazilian-ness had to come from somewhere, and that's right, dad was Brazilian, a midfielder from Rio, who made his name playing for the Mexican club Americas. And yet, and yet. Mexico Under 17s go on to down Brazil 3-0 in the final. Gio has a hand in all three goals. In the absence of great young hopes Freddy Adu (U.S.A – otherwise engaged) and Anderson (Brazil - injured), Gio lifts the cup and secures the unofficial plaudit of player of the tournament. In the very un-Brazilian green and white of Mexico.

There is one more link between the Mexico U17´s creative spark and that of the Barcelona first team. Ronaldinho is also the archetypal modern playmaker in terms of his physique. Two teams who everyone accepts can play beautiful (if not necessarily winning) football – Arsenal and Barcelona – have players like Henry and Reyes, Fabregas and Hleb, Giuly and Xabi, Larsson and Eto'o, each of a similar mould. Each is 'athletic' (which really means 'physically intelligent'), each is slight, light on their feet, and each make up attacking ensembles which, when on song, are defined by their movement and fluidity, and when on song, can be untouchable. If Mexico is on the up, and Gio is its rocket fuel, there was something of this elusiveness (which riles defenders above all things) as they secured the mini Jules Rimet – they suffered 104 fouls (won 104 free kicks), second only to, you guessed it, Brazil.

When a player born in 1989 occupies column inches its not just an indicator of none of us getting much younger. Younger players are fit, and increasingly in high tempo, fifty-games-a-season conditions, in which arguably thinker-managers like Rijkaard and Wenger have a physical blueprint mapped for their playmakers, slimline, run-all-day youth is being used to advantage. Youngerns are being given opportunities and instruction at the highest level. Now that match-winners are getting younger, or is it thinner - you really can win things with kids/ waifs – Giovani dos Santos promises, sooner rather than later, to have many more crushed opposition fans leaving stadiums early than there were elated admirers that night in the Elias Aguírre, shivering and gawping after the final whistle.

No comments: