By Nicholas Rosano
“On the lower parts of West 4th Street, there’s a kid that will go far. If you have time, check him out,” raved the old-timer from the northern port town of Tocopilla.
He was right – the kid was no slouch, but even the seasoned football fan might not have realised that he would one day be the future of Chilean football.
While the story of Alexis Sanchez at Udinese and his links to the biggest clubs in the world is known by fans everywhere, his journey by no means started there. From his dominance over his teenage colleagues to his influential performances in the Copa Libertadores, Sanchez had captivated South American with his electric play by the age of 20, his four-year professional career in South America proved vital in his development as he picked up experience that would eventually lead him to the pinnacle of world football.
Far and away the best player among the local youth, a 13-year-old Sanchez quickly rose to represent Tocopilla at regional level, and after an eight-goal performance in a youth tournament, he was snapped up in 2004 by provincial powerhouse Cobreloa and joined their under-14 side.
He wouldn’t stay in the youth sides for long, though. Cobreloa’s staff recognised his potential early on and under the tutelage of previous (and soon to be) Chile manager Nelson Acosta he made his professional debut for the reigning champions, featuring 13 minutes in a league win over Deportes Temuco on 12 February 2005, less than two months after his 16th birthday.
In a 2-1 league win over Deportes Concepcion on March 19 2005, Sanchez scored the opener and was integral in play leading to the winning own goal, leading the Chilean publication Terra to dub the then-under-17 international as Cobreloa’s “salvation” following the departure of a number of key stars after their 2004 Clausura win.
|'El Nino Maravilla'
The 2005 season also saw the national media pick up his nickname “El Niño Maravilla” (the Wonder Boy), that has stuck with him since. He went on to add three goals and made a strong impression in the 2005 domestic league and Copa Libertadores, as well as that year’s Sudamericano Sub-17 championship. However, that was just an omen of greater things to come.
At age 17, Sanchez scored nine goals, including a hat-trick against Huachipato in the playoffs, in a breakout 2006 Apertura campaign. This led veteran Huachipato forward Leonardo Mas to comment: “I'm not going to discover that Alexis Sanchez is a great player, he has demonstrated it since he began playing, and what's happening with him is also very good for Chilean football.”
Already on the radars of many European clubs, Udinese quickly paid £1.8 million for his services in July of that year, beating out European powers such as Bayern Munich and Manchester United for his signature. The Italian side immediately loaned him back to Chilean giants Colo Colo, where he would start to make a name for himself throughout South America.
Not only did he feature regularly for Colo Colo as they won the 2006 Clausura and 2007 Apertura tournaments, he was a fixture on the continental stage. In his year at the club, he netted four goals in 16 games over the course of the 2006 Copa Sudamericana (where Colo Colo finished runners-up) and the 2007 Copa Libertadores, drawing effusive praise from the Chilean press not only for his technical abilities, but his mental strength and “personality” in hostile environments.
There he rubbed shoulders with a number of future Chile stars, including Humberto Suazo, Jorge Valdivia, Matías Fernández and of course, current Chile manager Claudio Borghi, who would be the latest figure in Chilean football to have prophesied his future stardom. Borghi not only called for his inclusion in the senior national team, but simply pointed out, “If he wants it hard enough and works, he will be a phenomenon.”
Tipped for stardom from the beginning
|“If he wants it enough and works hard, he will be a phenomenon.”
- Colo Colo coach Claudio Borghi, 2007
Another loan move followed, to Argentine giants River Plate, and Sanchez adjusted well to the higher level of play in the Argentine league; despite a few hiccups along the way, to be expected for such a young player. He netted four goals in the 2007-2008 season, including the winners in late season victories over Velez and Colon that all but handed River the 2008 Clausura title, their most recent to date. He celebrated his goal against Velez in a similar style to River and Chile legend Marcelo Salas, drawing the inevitable comparisons to Chile’s retiring superstar.
“El Niño wasn’t only a wonder for opening up the game with a strong right-footed shot,” wrote Argentine sports daily Ole after the Velez result. “Fast, intuitive and clingy, he won 14 balls!”
Clarín, meanwhile, wrote: “He was like a flash in every play, in every ball. He was, finally, El Nino Maravilla.”
With his international career well underway, a brace in a June 2008 friendly with Guatemala under his belt, and boasting the praise of the demanding Argentine press, a permanent return to Udinese beckoned. The story becomes much more familiar there, where he well and truly established himself in the eyes of the football world and showed progressive improvement in what is now approaching his third full season in Serie A. After a four-goal performance against Palermo and a brilliant winner against Juventus in January 2011, there were few left who doubted his potential for superstardom.
Surely off to one of the biggest clubs on the continent in summer 2011 and supported on the national team by the likes of other young stars such as Arturo Vidal and Mauricio Isla, the only way seems to be up for both him and the Chile. The 22-year-old from the streets of tiny Tocopilla has seen plenty already in his six-year playing career, but the best could be yet to come.