Sanchez carrying Chile’s hopes at World Cup
CUIABA, Brazil (AP) — In the shadow of Lionel Messi at Barcelona, Alexis Sanchez is undoubtedly the main man for Chile as the fleet-footed forward attempts to cap the most prolific season of his career by playing a starring role at the World Cup.
Sanchez is the face of Chilean football, adorning posters, advertisements and turning up in TV commercials. In one — made for Gillette around two years back — he appears as a boxer, Formula One driver, weightlifter and a high-platform diver, a champion in all his different guises.
And it’s fitting, really. To the adoring Chilean public, there’s little Sanchez cannot do.
On the pitch, it was his poise in front of goal that was often perceived to be his chief deficiency. But he rectified that this season, scoring 21 times for Barcelona from the right wing including two goal-of-the-season contenders.
Sanchez is turning into the complete package, just in time to grace the sport’s biggest stage in Brazil.
“You use those sorts of guys, playing (console game) FIFA, and you see them in footballing headlines all over the word, so it is a little bit daunting,” said Australia goalkeeper Mat Ryan, who will come up against Sanchez in Chile’s opening Group B game in Cuiaba on Friday.
“I’ll just have to do my best to look at the ball and not at the player to see who it is.”
The 25-year-old Sanchez is the first name on the team sheet for Chile but is not held quite in such high regard at Barcelona.
He has never been a regular in his three years at Camp Nou following his move from Italian side Udinese. Even with his strike rate soaring this season, improving on league totals of 11 and eight goals in his first two years with the team, he has often been dropped to the bench for the big games.
Cesc Fabregas started ahead of him in Barcelona’s Champions League quarterfinal defeat to Atletico Madrid and also in the loss to Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey final. There is even talk of Sanchez leaving the club in the offseason as new coach Luis Enrique overhauls the squad.
Barcelona’s loss would be another club’s gain, though.
For Sanchez is just starting to fulfil his potential on the international stage. Playing in a more central position in attack alongside Eduardo Vargas may have helped improve his finishing — just ask England, whose defense Sanchez tore apart in a sublime two-goal display in a friendly at Wembley Stadium in November.
“Alexis is different,” Chile coach Jorge Sampaoli said through a translator on Thursday. “He can go in behind (the defense), and then he can of course go deeper and take advantage of goal-scoring opportunities.
“We need this type of player who is very nimble and is quick to break through strong defenses.”
Born into a poor family, Sanchez turned to football as a form of “survival.”
“I told my mother from a young age, ‘Don’t worry, I will become a football player and get us out of this situation,’” Sanchez said last year.
“If I had failed, I would be working 15-hour days on construction sites and still not be earning enough to live. Football saved me.”
That attitude is borne out in the way he plays, always full of endeavor and never giving defenders any peace.
And he doesn’t forget his roots, returning to his home village of Tocopilla in northern Chile every year at Christmas time to spend time with his family and deliver gifts to children from on top of a truck.
A street in Tocopilla is named after him and there could be more honors from his homeland if Sanchez, a player at the peak of his powers, can inspire Chile to produce something special at the World Cup.