The inside story of how Alexis Sanchez went from small town hero to Arsenal's £35 million man
Chilean's pace, versatility and technical qualities are obvious, but it is his personality that makes him so suited to Arsene Wenger and Arsenal
Arsenal were without their three World Cup winners at the annual members' day on Thursday but, even if Mesut Ozil, Per Mertesacker and Lukas Podolski had suddenly arrived wearing their new medals, the star attraction would have been the same.
All eyes from the stands were on the squat 5ft 7ins figure of Alexis Sanchez and inside the Armoury – the club shop – most wallets were being emptied in appreciation of Arsenal's most expensive ever striker. The ‘17 – Alexis' shirts have been the top seller of the summer but some novelty masks of the club's first player from Chile have also been moving with considerable speed.
Sanchez obliged for pictures with fans and a few words in broken English but was at his most eloquent once the practice match began. A blur of passing followed. Sanchez to Mathieu Debuchy. Back to Sanchez again.
A one-two with Yaya Sanogo and then a goal that drew audible gasps from the 5,000 or so fans at the Emirates. It was not quite as good as Jack Wilshere's ‘goal of the season' against Norwich last year but something comparable.
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The pace, versatility and technical qualities are obvious. They were evident during the World Cup but also on his one previous trip to Wembley ahead of Sunday's Community Shield against Manchester City when he scored both goals in Chile's 2-0 win over England. Sanchez's skills were more fleetingly apparent during three years at Barcelona which ultimately ended with him discovering that there can only be one attacking focal point at the Nou Camp – and his name is Lionel Messi.
Yet it is still worth recalling the words of Pep Guardiola shortly before he stood down as Barcelona manager in 2012. “Alexis Sanchez has stolen my heart,” said Guardiola. "He is very young, but he came forward and sacrificed himself a lot. He is very humble. I think the club has made a special signing.”
Speak to anyone at Arsenal and it is quickly obvious that researching Sanchez's personality was as fundamental to the scouting process as his footballing qualities.
And to understand Sanchez, to appreciate the mentality that is so admired by both Guardiola and Wenger, you must also know about a small coastal town called Tocopilla. There are less than 25,000 inhabitants in Tocopilla but, beyond being the birthplace of Sanchez, it has attracted global attention for also being the town in Chile that was most devastated in 2007 by an earthquake that reached 7.7 on the Richter Scale. It displaced 15,000 people and destroyed 30 per cent of all standing structures.
Sanchez enlisted the help of Messi and other Barcelona stars to raise awareness and funds. He also now returns each Christmas to ride through the streets of Tocopilla alongside the mayor Fernando San Román in an open top float to disperse presents – mostly signed footballs – to local children.
On his visit last December, a street was renamed in his honour following a vote by Tocopilla residents. The road that was once ‘Cuarta Poniente' now bears the name ‘Alexis Sánchez'. The significance of the location is that Sanchez took his first footballing steps on the ‘cancha Lazareto' pitch along this road. Juan Segovia, his teacher and first coach, still remembers it vividly.
“He was a born ‘pointer',” he says, in reference to Sanchez's playing position. “I never positioned him as a striker but as a forward, like he played at Udinese. He had the freedom to play in front of the midfield and he was everywhere accompanying his team-mates. But he was not a goalscorer. He was more of a creator.”
It did not take long for word of Sanchez's talent – and dedication – to spread. “Here in Tocopilla, Alexis became known immediately; those who saw him realised he was one of a kind,” says Segovia. “All clubs have wanted him. He played with adults and was not afraid. And you could tell, he had it in his head that he wanted to become a professional footballer. He said, ‘I'm going to get to the top, to be one of the best players in the world'.
"It was not his mum that pushed him, nor his relatives. Sanchez pushed himself. He has no obligation to anyone but nonetheless has helped a lot of people.”
By the age of 16, Sanchez had moved 100 miles east to the mining desert of Calama, a city that stands at an altitude of 2,260 metres and which is also home to the Primera Division club Cobreloa. Sanchez's hero, unsurprisingly, was Marcelo Salas but his former team-mate, Nelson Tapia, remembers advising him not to broadcast his allegiance for rivals Universidad de Chile (La U).
“We told him not to identify with any shirt even though he was a fan of La U and his idol was Marcelo Salas,” recalls Tapia. “Nearly all the players in that squad had played for big teams and we knew that the fans held it against you when you make that confession. We went along teaching him important things, like how to be the man of the house. We showed him how to fold his clothes, we taught him how to cook. We made salads, meat. He was very good at making pizzas.”
Salas, who was to become a mentor, agrees that the time spent in Calama was pivotal to Sanchez's development. “The group at Cobreloa were the ones that did the most for him,” says Salas. “He had the fortune to land in a squad of men, good people, with a lot of experience. They were the ones that guided him.”
Cobreloa's fitness coach, Italo Traverso, also recalls how Sanchez grew in stature after being invited by then manager Nelson Acosta to train with the Chile national team in 2005. “There, in the training camps, Marcelo (Salas) spoke to him,” he says. “Alexis's kind and friendly nature was key. At Cobreloa, he was in a group of big men, who were well travelled and they welcomed him and protected him.”
The Cobreloa youth players lived in club houses and money was scarce. Francisco Piña, one of Sanchez's teammates, recalls that they were still paid a flat fee of 50,000 pesos (£45) per month even when they broke into the senior team. “Alexis played every game and they called me up, but they never gave us more than that money,” he says.
Sanchez lived with a man called Luis Astorga who had two daughters, Barbara and Andrea. “It upset us so much when he said he was leaving, even though he told us he would miss us,” says Barbara. “Then, when he actually left, it was like saying goodbye to a brother, and for my parents, a son. My parents were in tears.”
The next stop was Udinese, who had paid £1.7 million for the 17-year-old Sanchez. They promptly loaned him out for seasons in Chile and Argentina where he was respectively part of league title winning teams with Colo Colo and River Plate. Having made his international debut at the age of 18, Sanchez played for the first time with Salas – Chile's all-time record goalscorer – in September 2007. “Alexis will be better than me,” says Salas. “He endears himself to you. It is impossible to dislike him.”
That largely still applied after his £25 million move to Barcelona in 2011 but whether he was ever truly loved at the Nou Camp is less certain. In the context of the £75 million arrival this summer of Luis Suarez, it is interesting to consider how high-profile outsiders – Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Thierry Henry and Yaya Toure – have often struggled to establish themselves at a club that so revers its homegrown talent.
Even if Barcelona effectively valued Suarez as worth £40 million plus Sanchez, it would be impossible to judge his time in Spain as anything other than a qualified success. He won six medals and was only out-scored in La Liga last season by Messi, Diego Costa and Cristiano Ronaldo.
It was no surprise then that he was coveted this summer by Liverpool as well as Arsenal. Four factors are understood to have been crucial in Sanchez's decision.
The London location, the belief that Arsenal are better placed to regularly qualify for the Champions League, the chance to play with Mesut Ozil and also the personal intervention of Wenger, who speaks fluent Spanish, and met with Sanchez's representatives in Brazil during the World Cup.
Wenger's long-standing admiration for Sanchez is even easier to understand. An ability to play across the front four positions in his usual 4-2-3-1 formation will give Arsenal numerous options.
It was clear last season that Arsenal needed further back-up to Olivier Giroud but, in a sense, the choice of such a different striker has represented a vote of confidence in the Frenchman. Giroud will almost certainly start less often this season but Sanchez is hardly replacing him as the one true ‘back to goal' target-man. Sanchez's pace will also be vital in a team that so missed Theo Walcott following his knee ligament injury in January.
“I know Alexis very well because I am a Barcelona fan,” says vice-captain Mikel Arteta. “He is a player who is going to give us a boost. Arsenal is a club that is very good on the break, very good at exploiting space. I think we have been missing that pace in behind. Sometimes we played with [Santi] Cazorla, Giroud, [Jack] Wilshere up front – and we had no pace.”
Wenger clearly believes that Sanchez will benefit by stepping out of Messi's shadow. “At Barcelona it was a bit more difficult but it's like you could see with Neymar,” he said. “You see Neymar with Brazil and Neymar with Barcelona and it's not the same.”
Sanchez's ambition, hunger and physical toughness have also already impressed. He is built like a middleweight boxer and has that low centre of gravity that has been evident in many great South American players.
“Arsene Wenger's style of play is the sort of style the Chilean national team has, so therefore I am used to it,” says Sanchez. "Playing regularly wasn't the only reason I came here. I came here to win the league title, the Champions League. We can achieve big things. The team not only plays really good football, but the squad is really good and we can win silverware.” It might only be the Community Shield but that process can start at Wembley tomorrow.
Additional reporting by Matias Grez