Wasted Youth: What Happened to Jozy Altidore and Giovani Dos Santos?
On October 2, 2005, not far from the ruins of the Incan Empire's most famous city, Macchu Picchu, a 16 year-old boy smiled, holding a shining trophy high above his head.
Back in Mexico, millions of his countrymen cheered in elation, and some simultaneously wondered if the boy was leading a budding empire of his own.
The boy, Giovani dos Santos, had just captained Mexico's U-17 squad to its first World Cup championship in any category, turning in a stellar performance that helped him obtain the tournament's Bronze Ball award.
With FC Barcelona's famed youth academy—the same that would see players like Bojan Krkic and Lionel Messi come up through its ranks—handling dos Santos' development, it seemed like the sky was the limit.
Similarly, the United States Soccer Federation had to be incredibly pleased with its young, talented team that for the first time ever, was almost nearly all home-grown.
Already boasting talented attackers in Landon Donovan, Freddy Adu and Damarcus Beasley; a 16 year-old New Jersey native was being touted as "the guy."
Before he even turned 18, U.S. Men's National Team Coach Bob Bradley had seen enough to call him up to the senior squad.
Recognition, fortune —and perhaps the sweetest thing of all—relative obscurity in New York, a city known for exalting athletes into gods—was showered upon "the guy," who casually slipped into his role, even requesting the #9 shirt for his dates with the national team.
And so, no one batted an eyelash when soon after, Europe clamored for "the guy." No one was surprised that a club from the Spanish league, practically uncharted territory for American players, was the ultimate destination.
Today, less than two years from Altidore's leap to Spain; less than four years from dos Santos' triumph, the two rising stars, the two saviors, ply away in obscurity in lower European divisions, away from the glitz—and the real talent.
Giovani dos Santos
A favorite of Frank Rijkaard, dos Santos debuted with Barcelona's senior team in September of 2007. Despite receiving spot starts in the League, dos Santos' activity was mainly limited to seeing action as a sub and playing in lesser important tournaments.
As Barcelona were knocked out of La Liga's title race, Giovani was given more playing time, and he rewarded Rijkaard's trust with a hat-trick in the last game of the season.
Already a media darling in Spain and Mexico, speculation arose when Giovani became a naturalized citizen of Spain, making him eligible to play for La Furia Roja, as well as Brazil (through his father) and his native Mexico. He ultimately chose Mexico.
New Barcelona manager Josep Guardiola saw dos Santos as part of Rijkaard's old regime which ended in locker room turmoil. Guardiola's fellow Spaniard, Juande Ramos, pressed his bosses at Tottenham to make an offer. Four million euros later, dos Santos was a Spur.
Ramos' other signings promised fans a young, vivacious, exciting team. Instead, Tottenham looked weak, confused and easily beaten. Ramos was fired before the end of the year. New manager Harry Redknapp relegated dos Santos to the bench, and an injury didn't help his playing time much, either.
Tottenham's relative resurgence has eased pressure from Redknapp and his decision to bench several players. This month, Giovani has been loaned out to Ipswich Town, currently battling for promotion in the Championship, England's second-tier.
In Mexico, national team boss and Gio booster Sven-Goran Eriksson is apparently one bad result away from being fired, something that could come as early as March 28, when Mexico faces Costa Rica in the second game of World Cup qualifying.
For his national team, Giovani has failed to impress, often times looking overwhelmed on the pitch and turning in sub-par performances against considerably weaker opponents. In over 10 appearances, he's yet to score and only has one assist.
Despite only being 20, Giovani is already being labeled a bust by some media outlets, comparing him to former prodigy Pedro Pineda, a striker so promising that he was poached by AC Milan in his teenage years, but ended his career in obscurity, toiling in Mexico's second divsion.
The lanky, speedy young man from New Jersey was already seen as a polished talent at the age of 16, when he became eligible for MLS' SuperDraft. However, some clubs passed on him, some mistrusting the scouting reports, and others not wanting to spend a pick on a player that would surely be gone a few years later.
Altidore slipped to 16th in the draft, eventually being selected by New York. Less than a month after his professional debut, Altidore had already scored. Exactly one month after beginning his career, he had already blasted home his first game winner.
By 2008, less than two years after debuting, Altidore had already been selected by the U.S. Men's National Team, scored 15 professional goals and had his image grace the cover of EA Sports' popular videogame, FIFA 08.
MLS had been negotiating with European clubs since the beginning of 2008, and a bidding war ensued. Spanish club Villareal won out, paying over $10 million for Altidore's services, becoming the highest amount ever a club has paid for an American player.
In Europe, Altidore found a different culture and a wildly different approach to the sport. Even at a relatively smaller club like Villareal, press attention swarmed the players at every corner.
In six months, Altidore only mustered a handful of appearances as a substitute, and despite scoring once, his playing time was severely hampered by the pecking order at Villareal, which features fellow New Jersey product Giuseppe Rossi, Mexican international Guillermo Franco, and Turkish star Nihat.
Despite receiving offers from clubs as prestigious as Everton, Villareal decded to loan Altidore out to the Spanish second division. Xerez was Altidore's final destination, with the intent that the American receive playing time.
However, nearly two months later, Altidore has yet to appear in a league game for Xerez.
Back home, the national team's superior form coupled with Jozy's lack of playing time has seen him having playing time by coming off the bench in recent games, managing two goals in less than ten games.
While his status with the American team is secure for now, Altidore faces stiff competition from Brian Ching, Clint Dempsey, Charlie Davies and Donovan, who is fresh off a stint with Bayern Munich. All except for Ching play for European clubs, as well.
At Villareal, Altidore is set to return from his loan deal this summer, at the same time when Robert Flores, Marco Ruben and Mathias Vidangossy return from their loan deals.
Flores, Ruben and Vidangossy are all forwards, and have all received considerable playing time in their clubs, and could very well number Altidore's days at Villareal.
While some outlets might be quick to label these players a bust, attention must also be paid to the fact that not every young, talented player is Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, and that not every young, talented player is lucky enough to have such stable development periods as those aforementioned players.
Messi flourished under Frank Rijkaard and became an unquestionable star, and Cristiano Ronaldo has become a top-tier player with Alex Ferguson as his mentor. Modern football (and modern football economics) have made loan deals for unused players and quick firings of managers after a handful of games the norm.
These two may not ever be Messi or Ronaldo caliber players, but there is no reason not to suspect they won't star for their respective countries and clubs for years and years to come.
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