No halting meteoric rise of Boy Wonder
Alexis Sanchez's transfer to one of Europe's elite can rubber stamp his glittering reputation, writes Rory Smith
It takes something special to stand out among the countless hours of footage, amid the millions of images of thousands of players that are sent in every week from across the globe to a state-of-the-art viewing facility in Italy's stark, foggy north. Alexis Sanchez did not even need a second glance. In the dusty heart of Chile's copper country, Udinese knew straightaway they had struck gold.
"We had heard about Alexis as a teenager," recalls the Italian side's sporting director, Fabrizio Larini. "We have a centre where we receive tapes from games from all the world's leagues and he was flagged up to us. We sent a couple of scouts to see him live and they confirmed what we had heard. In a player like that, you can see indications of how good they can be. We knew immediately."
Quite how sound their judgment proved is likely to be borne out as soon as the international transfer window opens on July 1. Sanchez electrified Serie A last season, helping the league's great merchants -- buy low, sell high -- into the Champions League for just the second time in their history.
Udinese have already discussed the 22-year-old with Manchester United, Manchester City, Internazionale, Juventus and Barcelona. The bidding starts at £32m. Claudio Borghi, the Chilean national team manager, believes the player's powerful build, his jet heels, his balance and his poise mean he could be "better than Messi".
Sanchez's gleam has been burnished to perfection by life in Serie A. The boy spotted in Udinese's dark room has grown into one of the world's brightest stars. "It is no surprise to me," says Nelson Acosta, the manager who first drafted Sanchez, as a 16-year-old, into his first team at Cobreloa, a side based in Calama, in Chile's arid north, a town built to service Chuquicamata, the world's largest copper mine.
"The first time I saw him I said he had no limits. He has everything. Normally in young boys there is something missing, be it skill, or vision, or the ability to beat a man. Not in Alexis. That is very rare."
Even rarer is the speed at which Sanchez has progressed. At 14, he was spotted in a trial by Roberto Spicto, Cobreloa's then youth team manager.
"Their general manager told me he had a great player," remembers Spicto, gruff, fast-talking. "He was playing as an attacking midfielder. It was obvious how good he was. I said we had to take him straightaway." Spicto would lose him just as quickly, Acosta spiriting him to the senior side after seeing his performances in Cobreloa's youth set-up.
"The impression he made in his first training sessions was so strong," says Acosta. "He was 16 when we gave him his first start." There is a pattern to Sanchez's career: pace. Constant, almost dizzying development, evolution.
Youth team hopeful, first team star. This is not a man with a desire to wait.
"He did well in training and he made his debut as a substitute against Deportes Temuco," says Jaime Cortes, a journalist for El Mercurio de Calama and the man responsible for Sanchez's nickname: 'El Nino Maravilla' ('Boy Wonder').
"It was a complicated game and Sanchez set up the winning goal. He was given a standing ovation. It was then that I thought of the nickname. He came on the pitch and he dazzled with his tricks, which were the same as he did every day in training. Cobreloa had a genuine marvel. He was just a kid, just 16, with a boy's size, a boy's body, a boy's mind. So he became 'El Nino Maravilla'."
Sanchez was not finished. He made his debut in the Copa Libertadores, South America's most prestigious competition, a month later. As the youngest player ever to play in the competition, he won a penalty to beat Once Caldas, the powerful Colombian side. Another standing ovation. "He does so much damage," says Acosta. "That is what is special about him. He hurts your opponents."
The tapes were beginning to pour in to Udine, to the player analysis centre which has allowed Udinese to identify and nurture talent from across the globe for the last decade. By July, with Manchester United reportedly monitoring him, the Italian side moved, buying Sanchez for £2m, no more than six months after his professional debut.
It is here that there is a slight interruption in Sanchez's fairytale. By the standards of his opening chapters, the kid who grew up in Tocopilla, a heavily industrialised port in the north of Chile -- known, fittingly enough, as the City of Energy, for its power plants -- should have moved to Serie A as a 16-year-old, the jewel of the new world, and reinvigorated a dying league. That is not, though, how Udinese work.
"You need to let players develop in a comfortable environment," explains Larini. "That is why we did not bring him across immediately. Instead, we sent him to Colo Colo for a year in Chile, then River Plate in Argentina, another step up. Only when he was ready did we bring him here. That is crucial if you are to let players fulfil their talent." He was worth the wait. Last year was Sanchez's best -- including four goals, one a pitch-long run, in one game against Palermo -- but he has been blossoming since 2008. Those who know him best insist he will only continue to improve; that the self-indulgent trickery that marks most young South American players is receding, that he is becoming more potent, more menacing.
"I remember him trying to master the trick Ronaldinho does that we call 'el latigo'," says Cortes. In English it is known as a flip-flop, guiding the ball in two directions with the same foot.
"He tried it in training all the time. Eventually he mastered it. Now he does it perfectly. He also loves switching feet and beating people. It is something he learned on the streets in Tocopilla. It is innate. He does it effortlessly."
Sanchez is one of those players that greatness comes easily to. Little wonder Acosta, Cortes, Spicto, those who watched him come from the dust, believe fervently that he will be the best in the world. In Calama, they know that what the ground bestows is precious. They know when the glittering is gold.
Sunday Indo Sport