Alexis Sánchez is a creative player, capable of producing moments of magic, he has scored goals for five different clubs in Europe but it is the energy, work-rate and never-give-up attitude of the Chilean that has won the hearts of millions around the world. His career trajectory has gone down since moving to Manchester United but today we dig a bit into his past and explore what makes Sánchez such a hard-working footballer, why he chases the ball like a hungry lion and where his ferociousness comes from.
Alexis Alejandro Sánchez was born on 19 December 1988 in a mining village called Tocopilla, which means the Devil’s Corner in the Quechua language. The nearest city, Antofagasta, is a three-hour drive away from where Chile’s all-time top scorer was born. Sánchez was born to Martina Sanchez and Gullermo Soto. Alexis was only a few months old when Gullermo, who was jobless, deserted Sanchez and his three siblings due to his inability to take care of the children. Sánchez grew up quicker than most kids, he had to, there was no other choice.
The hunger you see on the pitch from Sánchez comes from his difficult upbringing. Despite playing in cities like Barcelona, London, Manchester, and Milan, it was a tough life growing up, he was never like some pampered players you hear about. Having a difficult beginning is what inspired Alexis to be determined from an early age.
After his father left, it was Alexis’s mother, Martina, who worked incredibly hard to provide for her four children. She had to work multiple jobs to bring in money, including cleaning houses, washing fish, selling flowers and even as a cleaner in her own son’s school. She did all this to take care of her children Tamara, Marjorie (sisters) and brother Humberto. Sanchez’s love for his mother has always been a driving force for him. Miss Martina’s income only lasted for a short time and young Alexis knew that to take his family out of those conditions, he had to work hard. Hailing from a mining village, Sanchez saw people working hard all day long for a few pesos, but luckily for him, football would not only improve his life, but it would also provide the people of Chile with their greatest footballer.
In a 2014 interview for The Sun, Humberto, Sánchez’s elder brother said “Alexis had nothing when growing up. He had to fight for everything he has. We were the poorest of the poor so Alexis had to earn money any way he could from a very young age”. Humberto continued, “Sometimes he was so hungry he would knock on neighbours doors and ask for bread”. Having come from such a tough beginning, it is no surprise that he remains very loyal to his roots and visits his old home twice a year, giving out toys and footballs to the children on Christmas.
Just as Alexis does not stand near the opponent’s goal, waiting for the ball to come to him, he did not rely on occasional help from neighbors or his mother’s hard work to get through life, Sánchez has been a go-getter since his childhood. Even as a boy, Alexis was an entertainment package. He used to perform acrobatics for the people for some change and Sánchez would occasionally box with young boys. Humberto said “He loves boxing. Someone had an old pair of gloves and he’d put them on and fight another young lad. Then the neighbours would give him a little (money) for his troubles.” As a child, Alexis was nicknamed “The Squirrel” because of his willingness and ability to climb up trees to recover lost balls, as well as his boundless energy whilst playing football on the streets.
As hard as Sánchez’s mother would work, there is only so much she could earn, especially in an undeveloped mining village of Chile. It came to a point where feeding all her children, who were growing older, was not possible for Miss Martina. At this point, Sanchez’s uncle, Jose Delaigue offered to keep one of her children with him to reduce the stress on this working mother of four. Delaigue offered to adopt Alexis Sánchez, who was growing up without a father. Even though Martina was not initially convinced but at least in Delaigue’s house, her child would have enough to eat. The family completed the necessary paper works and Delaigue became the adoptive father of Alexis.
The uncle also decided to invest in little Alexis after seeing his energy and athleticism. He used his life savings to register Sánchez in local club Arauco’s youth school where he could only play part-time football. Even though Sánchez lacked any football experience or training, he had something that can not be taught, young Alexis had hunger, tenacity and grit. This is where the road to becoming the all-time top appearance maker for Chile started for Sánchez. He fell in love with football and saw the possibility to improve his family’s condition.
Although, Sanchez’s uncle had more money than his mom and in his uncle’s house, he did not have to ask the neighbors for food, but after a few years, there was a point where his uncle was not able to provide for Alexis. Delaigue also faced trouble paying the football fees, which could have ended Sánchez’s football dream before it began.
So, the next time you see Sánchez running back to win the ball on the pitch and ask yourself ‘where does this hunger and attitude come from’, well, it was at his uncle’s house where a decision was made that little Alexis would go out to work and bring in a little money through any means necessary. Alexis started entertaining people in the street by doing acrobatics, kickboxing (he was paid to fight other children), worked at the cemetery and even washed cars.
Football journey of the wonderkid
A major reason why Delaigue invested money in Sánchez’s football was Alberto Toledo, a coach at Arauco’s youth school. Toledo discovered Alexis while he was playing football (barefoot) on a dirt pitch near the family home. Toledo, in his sixties, now recalls that day “It was obvious the kid had talent, speed, strength, a great shot, and a footballing brain. I spoke to his mum and persuaded her to let him train at the school”. Sánchez’s family had trouble making enough for food, so he obviously did not have the money to buy the proper boots and had to borrow a pair to play tournaments.
The Chilean’s hard work and effort would be recognized soon when he scored 8 goals in a single match and was soon given a pair of his own boots by the mayor of Tocopila. Alexis’s friend back then, Paulo Leyton, remembers that performance like it was yesterday. He said: “One match he arrived late and we were a goal down. He banged in eight and we won the match. He was that good.” The Squirrel as he was known as a child, would become known as “El Nino Maravilla” (The Wonder Kid).
The biggest turning point for Sánchez would come when Luis Astorga, a wealthy Chilean humanitarian, offered to provide everything for the young Chilean to succeed in football. Astorga had done a lot of work for promising young kids in Chile who had the talent to excel. He knew Sánchez was special and invested in him without expecting anything in return. Suddenly, Sánchez did not have to worry about making a few pesos by washing cars or doing acrobatics to entertain people, it was his time to put all energy into football so he could entertain millions around the world.
With further help from Luis Astorga, Cobreloa football club took a chance on Sánchez in 2005 and of course, he did not disappoint. In 2006, Alexis became the youngest-ever player to play for the Chile National team where he played with Salas (Chile’s all-time record goalscorer before Sánchez took this record). After watching Alexis play, Salas said “Alexis will be better than me.” His prediction was not wrong as Alexis has represented some of the biggest clubs in the world and won many trophies.
For Sánchez, it was never about becoming Chile’s football royalty, he just needed a way to improve his own and especially his mother’s life. He said this in an HBO documentary “When I was a kid my mother was working and I didn’t like it that my mother was working. When she was cleaning in the school I hid because I didn’t like to see her there”. He continued “If I had not become a football player I would probably have ended up working in the mine, or doing something else, something tough, but I would have done something. I wanted to triumph as a footballer to help the family and the people of Tocopilla.”
After just one year at Cobreloa, Udinese, an Italian club paid £1.7 million in 2006 for Sánchez. He would make a £25 million move to FC Barcelona in 2011, becoming the most expensive Chilean of all-time. At Barcelona, Sánchez scored 47 goals in 141 appearances, won a La Liga title, the Copa Del Rey, 2 Spanish Super Cups, 1 European Super Cup, and 1 FIFA World Club Cup. In 2014, he moved to Premier League club Arsenal, where he quickly established himself as a fan favorite due to his skills, attitude and winning mentality. Alexis won two FA Cup in North London, scoring in both finals. In January 2018, Alexis signed with record Premier league winners Manchester United.
The move to Manchester United has not worked well for the Chilean with Sánchez scoring just 5 goals in 45 matches. He was loaned out to Inter Milan, where injuries are still plaguing him. Alexis has evidentially lost some of his hunger and tenacity that took him from an unknown part of the world to stardom. However, considering where he started, ‘The Squirrel’ has done more than enough in his life. Martina Sánchez, his mom will be especially proud of her son. In the same interview in 2014, Alexis’s brother Humberto said “If Alexis wasn’t a footballer he would be working in the mines like most men do in Chile. It’s a very tough life for 300,000 pesos (£314) a month. Growing up around here Alexis had three options — mining, fishing or football”.
Fortunately for the people of Chile and football fans around the world, Sánchez chose football.
Viva El Nino Maravilla
Written by Hammad Pervez
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