As Mexico prepares to face Germany in what is El Tri’s toughest challenge in the World Cup group stage, many questions surrounding Juan Carlos Osorio’s tactics continue to linger, especially among Mexican fans and media.
But if you ask Jonathan Dos Santos about his manager and the faith he has in him, nothing but serenity fills his voice.
“There’s no other way to describe him, he’s a philosopher. He’s obsessed, addicted with the game,” Dos Santos told SI.com. “I honestly feel privileged to be part of the national team under his management, because everyday I learn something new. Every moment we spend watching tape after training I discover something I would have never realized. So when you have a manager like that, working hard for the team becomes that much easier, that much more doable.”
Dos Santos remembers Germany from last summer’s FIFA Confederations Cup when Mexico lost 4-1 in the semifinals. Sure, it wasn’t a fully loaded German team, but it was Germany nonetheless and the 28-year-old midfielder believes that tournament, where he was arguably Mexico’s best player, is a great reminder of what El Tri is about to face.
Mexico’s biggest problem against the European giants was defending after immediately losing the ball, and dos Santos knows this is a major obstacle he and his teammates have to solve.
“In the end, it’s the small details within a match that make the difference and what ultimately determines if we win or lose," Dos Santos said. "Against Germany last summer, we left many spaces open and looked vulnerable, but we’ve worked hard to be more compact. And thanks to the manager, we work hard on the small details. I think the team is mentally ready to have a successful World Cup.”
Dos Santos is a major asset for Mexico, as his midfield versatility and qualities can determine how the team deals with transitional defense. Given that Porto’s Diego Reyes is out for the competition with a hamstring injury, the LA Galaxy star will be needed more than ever.
Aside from the responsibilities on the pitch, he sees Russia 2018 as the greatest moment of his career. And in fairness, it’s been a long time coming.
After being left out of the 2010 World Cup roster by then-coach Javier Aguirre just days before the tournament began in South Africa and missing out on Brazil 2014 due to injury, Russia is the 28-year-old's redemption tour.
“I’m dying to get things going, especially since the fact I couldn’t make it in the last World Cup due to injury," he said. "They say, third time’s the charm, and the fact that I’m also going with my brother, Giovani, the hope is not just to take part but to succeed. My mentality and overall goal is to succeed.”
Jonathan Dos Santos possesses a quality that many may not be aware of. He is very, very funny.
Every single answer and response is given with a smile or a chuckle, and ever the prankster, he’s always looking for an opportunity to fool around. At the beginning of this conversation, for example, he gave a countdown on how long we had to talk.
“It’s just a 60-second interview right? You better get started cause we’re wasting 10 right now.”
It’s not to say other members of El Tri don’t have this humorous quality, it’s just that you don’t really see it in the public eye. But you could hardly blame them. Due to the hostile nature of the Mexican media, especially in a World Cup year, most Mexican players are instinctively programmed to close off, unwilling to give much away in interviews.
For some in the media, when it comes to scrutinizing the national team and Osorio, nothing is off limits, and as a result players of past and present have had to naturally defend themselves. The latest example was Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez’s post on social media defending his squad in regards to an infamous late-night party held earlier this month after the squad played Scotland.
The message was mainly about defending his teammates, but it was also an attempt to rally the nation together.
In many ways, this hostile relationship between the national team and certain journalists seems strange to Dos Santos, because he’s never really experienced it on a regular basis. When he was 12, he left Mexico for Spain and joined Barcelona’s La Masia with his brother, Giovani. Europe became his home at a very young age, and Mexico was a world away.
The moment he entered Barcelona, even at such a young age, he knew he made the right decision.
“What can I tell you, I was in the best soccer school in the world, it was the beginning of my education,” he says.
After Jonathan Dos Santos captained the Juvenil A team and secured a Spanish passport, Luis Enrique selected him to be a member of the Barcelona B team in the summer of 2009, and he eventually made his way up to Pep Guardiola’s squad, making his debut for the first team in October of the same year. He only managed 28 appearances, but his time at Barça became an important foundation towards his development.
“Looking back and reflecting on my past, it was always going to be difficult for me to stay and succeed in Spain at the club, but just to be part of one of the greatest ever squads at Barcelona, it just makes me feel so proud of having been a part of it,” Dos Santos said.
After leaving Barça and playing for Villarreal for three seasons, Dos Santos moved to Los Angeles last year, and, in his opinion, it was the best decision of his career.
“In Los Angeles, I feel at home. I’m happy," he said. "Given the added fact there are so many Mexicans here in California, and my brother of course, moving here from Spain was seamless. I honestly can’t complain.”
It may not be Monterrey, but California is close enough to feeling like home.
Dos Santos is very close Giovani, who is one year his elder. Jonathan stayed with Giovani for seven months after arriving in the U.S, and they now live only three minutes apart. But they’re very different personalities.
“Listen, Gio loves to sleep and I’m always so active," he said. "If it weren’t for me, honestly, he would never make it to training (laughs). I love to socialize, go out and do some shopping, but Gio is a homebody. He’s much better now, but it’s all thanks to me.”
When Jonathan talks of his older brother, there is a clear sense of love and admiration, and the fact that they have been able to share this journey (Barcelona, Villarreal, LA Galaxy and now Russia) together makes it that much more memorable to him.
“Here’s the thing about my career that’s so special: Any player would love to play with his brother, anyone; so the fact that we have this incredible opportunity to be together in the same club and now the national team at the World Cup? It’s just amazing. It’s a dream come true,” he said.
If Mexico can get out the group and overcome the daunting curse of the fifth match–Mexico has lost in the round of 16 in each of the last six World Cups–Jonathan dos Santos’s role as a stalwart and creative midfielder could be a major reason why.
But perhaps even more important for Mexican fans is to take a page out of his book and realize that no matter the obstacle, always face it with a smile.