Gael Sandoval’s breakout season at Santos has put him on the radar of national team coach Juan Carlos Osorio.
When Hector Moreno signed a four-year deal with Roma last month, he could have been the second Mexican footballer to play for the Serie A club. In 2013, Santos Laguna’s Gael Sandoval trained with the first team after impressing Roma scouts in the Torneo di Viareggio, where Sandoval played with Santos’ Under-20s. Sandoval was only 17-years-old and the opportunities came fast.
“Imagine!” he said in an exclusive phone interview with ESPN FC. “I was just a young kid, who really didn’t know where he was. I didn’t understand the significance of the moment. All I knew was that I was at an important Serie A club, but really I had no knowledge of the magnitude of being there. I grew, started to mature in certain aspects, and now that I’m older I realize that I had an incredible opportunity, of which I want right now. I want to go back, to Roma or any other club, but my experience in Italy left me that — the desire to return.”
There’s an image of Sandoval jogging alongside Francesco Totti, which got the attention of the local press and got them asking about the young player training with the first team. A deal between Santos and Roma would never materialize, leaving the Guadalajara native to head back to Mexican football and wait for his chance in the first division.
Off an impressive 2017 Clausura, Sandoval finished the season as the Mexican footballer with the most assists — five — and his rise to prominence has been an emphatic one since his first division debut in August 2016. Sandoval’s excellent Clausura allows him to enter a selected group that includes the likes of Rodolfo Pizarro, Orbelin Pineda, Cesar Montes, Edson Alvarez and Erick Gutierrez, all of whom are Mexican players who could one day follow in Hirving Lozano’s footsteps and head to Europe.
A mature voice tone comes across when Sandoval talks, which explains what might have caused Juan Carlos Osorio’s coaching staff to add him to the Gold Cup preliminary list.
“What I can tell you is that this past season with the players I had beside me like ‘Osvaldito’ Martinez, Ulises Rivas, our full-backs [Jorge Villafana and Jorge Sanchez], and the left forward, Jonathan Rodriguez, I was able to explode my dynamic quality and really this was due to Santos’ dynamism found in the midfield. The fact that I was part of that gave me more stability, so I think that the security I showed in Santos’ midfield and the touch I have got Osorio’s attention.”
Gael Sandoval’s five assists were the most by a Mexican-born player in last year’s Clausura.
Not making the final cut might have been a tough hit for Sandoval, but one he can learn a lot from. Luis Pompilio Paez, who was Mexico’s acting coach while Osorio was with El Tri at the Confederations Cup in Russia, explained that although Sandoval didn’t make the Gold Cup final list, the door will always be open.
“Football takes many twists and turns,” he said before Mexico’s friendly against Ghana in late June. “In each call-up, what we look for is to find which players can be more influential in that moment… Football is not about the past; it’s about the present and what’s next.”
Santos had one of the most consistent regular seasons in the 2017 Clausura. Los Guerreros only lost once, but once the Liguilla came around, they hit a wall, losing 4-1 to Toluca in the first-leg of their quarterfinal series.
Sandoval, who was sent-off in the team’s last regular season match against Toluca, didn’t participate in that disastrous first leg. But in the second he came back and his presence could be felt as Santos got a 3-1 win over Los Diablos Rojos at Estadio Nemesio Diez but fell short of reaching the semis.
Sandoval learned a lot from that experience. “I have to take care of the details,” he started. “I know that what happened last season, and more than ever, I know that the small details can make the difference. I know I made a huge mistake that prevented me from playing in the first-leg of the quarterfinals against Toluca, so I have to be careful with the details and learn from my mistakes. I’m now aware that mistakes like the one I committed could influence our club’s chances of reaching a possible final.”
At 21, Sandoval’s football has a lot of similarities to that of FC Porto’s Jesus “Tecatito” Corona, who Sandoval admires because of “his game, technique, unique ability, his take-ons and cheekiness.” Each week he stays twice after training to improve on set pieces and finishing.
“In the technical aspect, what I like to practice a lot are free kicks and my finishing,” he said. “I feel that I still need to improve my finishing, but I have other details that need improvement.”
As he looks to improve, Sandoval has not lost sight of his ultimate goal: A return to Europe.
“I would like to be remembered as an important player who represented his country and helped it get the world’s attention. So the world can see that any Mexican can achieve their dreams and play wherever he wants. Be successful in a place like Europe, which at the end is the place where all players want to play. As a Mexican footballer, I would like to retire as one of the country’s role models.”
Nayib Moran covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @nayibmoran.