The recently concluded transfer window was one of the strangest and most unexpected ones of recent times. Lionel Messi signed for Paris Saint-Germain, Cristiano Ronaldo left Juventus and Antoine Griezmann will once again don the Atlético de Madrid colors.
The Premier League was no exception. Manchester City signed Jack Grealish for nearly $140 million, Chelsea paid $135 million for Romelu Lukaku and Manchester United forked out $100 million for Jadon Sancho. Amongst all the hyjinx and the multiple high-level signings, one of the league’s historic clubs seemed to lag behind.
Newcastle United let 24 players go and in turn only secured four signings for the under-23s team, and a mere lone addition to the first team: Joe Willock, who had been on loan at St. James’ Park during the second half of the 2020/21 league season. One of four youth team arrivals set off alarms not only in Tyneside, but across the Atlantic Ocean, in Mexico.
Santiago Muñóz, 19-year old center forward and youth international for 'El Tri', signed for the Magpies from Santos Laguna on an 18-month loan deal with the option to make it a permanent move. Muñóz’s name resonates in Tyneside since it is almost identical to that of legendary movie character Santiago Muñez from the Goal! franchise, but there is nothing fictitious about the promising real life attacker.
Beginnings at Santos Laguna
Muñóz was born in El Paso, Texas but his parents are from Mexico, which is why he is eligible to play for both countries on a senior level, a final decision he is yet to make. His soccer journey began in the border city in 2017, when a Santos Laguna representative discovered him via the massive scouting program Alianza Futbol. After two tournaments for the under-17s in Torreón, he was called up to the Mexican national team for the 2019 U-17 World Cup.
Muñóz, who can play in the middle of attack or drift out wide, was a crucial member of the squad that reached the final of the prestigious youth tournament, losing the decisive match against a Brazilian squad that featured the likes of Kaio Jorge and Gabriel Veron. Although he only scored one goal, his powerful strike against Japan in the Round of 16 match was voted as best of the tournament and the 5’11” figure established himself as a name to watch.
And watch Mexico did. Muñóz made his professional debut with the Laguneros a year later, in a Guard1anes 2020 match against Atlético de San Luis. The first goal for the El Paso native came a few months later, against none other than historic Club América in January 2021.
The rapid attacker ended the tournament with two more goals to his name and started 11 of the last 12 league games, but none of the Liguilla matches that saw Santos reach the final against Cruz Azul. In March, with only 18 years of age, the dual national was called up for the under-23s Men’s Olympic Qualifying by head coach Jaime Lozano, a tournament El Tri ended up winning.
Just as quick as Muñóz rose through the ranks to establish himself as a potential heir to Jared Borgetti’s legacy in the Comarca Lagunera, he was dropped from the first team by manager Guillermo Almada. The reason was that Muñóz, nominated for the 2020/21 Liga MX Rookie of the Year award, rejected a contract extension and wanted to sign for a European club, per the Mexican side.
“The technical staff took the decision that he (Muñóz), in view of his intention to leave for Europe, should continue preparing in Torreón and continue his formation in the under-20s, where he belongs. In that sense, we as a club respect the player’s will'', Santos president Dante Elizalde told TUDN.
The move was seen as controversial by the Mexican Association of Footballers, who expressed their support for the then-18-year old player and vehemently rejected Santos’s stance. Muñóz’s time with the Albiverdes came to a close with him not playing a single minute during the current Grita México A21. His final tally at Santos reads: 19 first team games, 3 assists, 3 goals.
“I owe Santos so much, they helped me fulfill my dream. My heart stays here, in the Laguna. Wherever I go and wherever I am, I will be a Guerrero. The opportunities Club Santos has given me are something I will never forget and that definitely marked my life. Without Santos I wouldn’t be achieving my dreams”, Muñóz described in his farewell address to followers of the Mexican club. Now that his goodbyes have been said, it’s time to begin the next chapter.
Newcastle announced his signing with a Twitter post on August 31 alluding to the hit Goal! franchise but not much else, other than a press release. No club video with a Muñóz interview, no reactions from manager Steve Bruce, and not even a mention of the Mexican youth international in the bizarre summer 2021 transfer window update that highlighted the concept of “we will spend what we have”.
What the Magpies did include regarding Muñóz in social media was a video recorded by Kuno Becker, who played Muñez in Goal! , wishing his countryman well in the Premier League.
“An amazing story, as I’m sure this real life story will be, with a lot of goals; no pressure, Santi. I really believe that Newcastle United and the movie Goal! are a magic combination… This team has inspired dreams, the movie has inspired dreams, and today I wanna say congratulations to the real life Santi that will also inspire a lot of people to dream”, Becker stated.
Although Muñóz will spend the entirety of this first season with the youth side, according to Tyneside newspaper The Chronicle, he would need to produce outstanding numbers to even be considered by Bruce in the future, an arduous task that has a ticking timer of 18 months left on it. In case the promising forward does make it into the Premier League squad, he would need to battle Callum Wilson, Joelinton and Dwight Gayle for minutes.
Muñóz’s harvest in Santos --an average of one goal every six and a half games-- might not be what Magpie followers consider to be spectacular, the hope of being the eleventh Mexican player in England’s top tier might push the attacker to the next level. Following in the footsteps of Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernández and Raúl Jiménez seems like a pipe dream today, but the final verdict won’t be read for another year and a half.