A Miracle from the desert
From the dusty pitches of northern Chile to carefully groomed European fields, the amazing rise of a devilish dribbler to the top of the soccer world.
Text: Ramiro Martín @RamiroMartinBCN ilustrations: GONZALO MARTÍNEZ
Calama, Chile, 2005. “Give me el niño (the boy) for a few days.” That short phrase is a perfect example of the impact Alexis Sánchez had while still a teenage soccer star, when teams throughout the town of Tocopilla begged his coach, Juan Segovia, to loan them the young player. Having “The Boy” meant having a chance at winning. El Niño would make all the difference. To his teammates, though, Sánchez was known as “Dilla” for his fast, elusive game that recalled the movements of a squirrel (ardilla in Spanish).
By 2003, rumors of Sánchez’s talent had already reached Calama, in the middle of the most arid desert in the world. Cobreloa jumped at the chance to add him to the lineup, and within a few months, coach Nelson Acosta had him join the pros. Sánchez was barely 15 years old. He made his debut on February 12, 2005, in a 5-4 win over Deportes Temuco. For his daring style of play and tender age, sports journalist Jaime Cortés dubbed him “el Niño Maravilla” (variously translated as Wonder Boy or The Boy Wonder). It was a baptism by fire. Everyone could tell that Sánchez was destined for greatness.
Santiago de Chile, 2006. The boy from Tocopilla was lucky to join an incredible generation of players when he arrived in the capital. Claudio Borghi’s Colo-Colo team boasted the likes of Arturo Vidal and Humberto Suazo, icons of contemporary Chilean soccer. The championships followed with a pair of wins at the 2006 Clausura and 2007 Apertura tournaments. Sánchez contributed nine goals in 48 games. Beyond the statistics, his talent and physical development pointed to a rising star who was playing on another level. He even impressed the elite core of the powerful River Plate from Argentina, one of Colo-Colo’s victims at the Copa Libertadores, when Sánchez scored a hat-trick in Caracas.
Buenos Aires, Argentina, 2008. One constant in Sánchez’s career is that he has left his mark on teams with great players. Just like Colo-Colo, River Plate offered an optimal situation. Radamel Falcao recalls his Chilean teammate: “We knew that he’d go far. His skills were clear from the beginning.” At the time, the Colombian native was a budding star as well. Sánchez also shared a locker room with legendary River Plate forward Ariel “El Burrito” Ortega and midfielder Leo Ponzio, a veteran of Europe, and a young, but promising, manager, Diego Simeone, led the team. Sánchez recalls his time at River Plate as a valuable apprenticeship. At 19, he was a champion with one of the great South American teams. He scored four goals in 31 matches and earned a title at the 2008 Clausura tournament.
Udine, Italia, 2008. Sánchez wore the Udinese Calcio uniform for 112 matches. He scored 21 goals and made 16 assists. Beyond statistics, though, what stood out most about his three seasons with Calcio was his unstoppable evolution as a player. He arrived as a relative unknown and ended up on par with local hero Antonio Di Natale. The two formed a duo that surpassed the numbers of legendary pairs like Maradona and Careca for Napoli in the late 1980s.
Sánchez spent this stretch in Italy without winning a title, but it was key to his personal development. He learned the language of Dante and established himself as a top player.
Barcelona, 2011. “He’s exactly what we need,” said FC Barcelona manger Pep Guardiola to his friend, club general manager Txiki Begiristain. He was talking about Sánchez. Guardiola was looking for a very specific kind of forward: a goal-scorer but with the technique to play within the team, talented but self-sacrificing enough to contribute on defense, a world-class player but one who would cede top-dog status to Lionel Messi.
Sánchez met all the requirements. To confirm his hunch, Guardiola called Marcelo Bielsa, a respected friend and the Argentinean manager responsible for the Wonder Boy’s explosion with the Chilean national team. Bielsa praised Sánchez’s game. Guardiola heard all he needed to hear and convinced Barça to pay whatever it took. The transfer fee was 37 million euros.
The Catalonian manager oversaw the Chilean player’s debut in the most important match early in the season: a showdown with Real Madrid for Spain’s Supercopa. Sánchez’s skill impressed the crowds as Barcelona won the title. At Barça, he played on six tournament-winning teams, with 141 matches, 47 goals and 32 assists. His time with Barcelona calmed his temperament and boosted his confidence. “I’m a great player,” he exclaimed beating his chest, rebutting criticism he received after a poor match.
Londres, 2014-2015. Arsene Wenger, Arsenal’s legendary Alsatian manager, was looking for a strong forward who would bring a dose of character to his team, a technically minded group lacking in veteran fire. Sánchez fit the bill to perfection, and the London club, famous for selling players to Barcelona, became the buyer, paying close to 50 million euros for the transfer. And they offered Sánchez what he wanted: the chance to be the unquestioned number one player for a top European club. “He’s a warrior. That’s why we wanted him,” said Wenger. “The Gunners,” as Arsenal is also known, have spent more than a year with the player Wenger dubbed “The Warrior” leading the charge. But behind the Apollonian figure of the Premier League’s new hero still beats the heart of the boy from Tocopilla who found out early on that he was born to travel the world.
Santiago, Chile, 2015. Vanquishing the Messi-led Argentinean national team was the feat of a truly extraordinary player. The most celebrated penalty kick in Chilean soccer history was a subtle shot that Sánchez – emulating Antonin Panenka – used to throw off Romero, the gigantic Argentinean goalie. Sánchez, who in 2008 had scored the first goal of the Bielsa era on a penalty kick (the seed that bloomed into the best Chilean national team of all time), closed this cycle of success with the Copa América, the first such title in Chile’s rich soccer history.
Tocopilla, yesterday, today and forever. Sánchez’s life and career are a real Cinderella story. He’s a true celebrity, but is the soccer superstar still the same person? The boy from Tocopilla who decided to pursue his dreams and take on the world always returns home to the northern coast of Chile. Sánchez comes back every year to play Santa’s Helper, riding in a truck and giving out toys to the town’s kids and spending time with the people who still remember him as “Dilla” and who know the boy behind the “desert miracle.”. in