Sunday 25 April 2021, 08:29

Leonel Sanchez, Chile’s divine left foot

  • Leonel Sanchez is widely regarded as Chile's all-time best player

  • He turns 85 today

  • recalls his magnificent career

“I think I’m Universidad de Chile’s most iconic player and one of Chile’s greatest ever forwards.”

The words are those of Leonel Sanchez and he says them fairly frequently, with pride, no little justification, but with humility too.

They say there has never been a better left foot in Chilean football, a statement that might have something to do with the stunning 40-yard strike that forever changed the rivalry between Universidad de Chile and Colo Colo in 1959, or the free-kick that caught the great Soviet keeper Lev Yashin off guard at the 1962 FIFA World Cup Chile™. It is a legend founded on more than 500 appearances, 200 goals and countless flashes of brilliance.

When he burst onto the scene in the 1950s, Sanchez brought with him qualities that Chilean football was not known for: character, a will to win, a sense of belonging, and a determination to entertain. Since the early days of the 20th century, boxing had been Chile’s national sport, its fighters doing what its footballers could not by capturing the country’s imagination whenever they took on the world’s best.

Sanchez himself could have been a contender in the ring. His father, a former South American featherweight champion, ran a gym where he trained fighters of the calibre of Arturo Godoy, a South American heavyweight champion who twice fought the great Joe Louis for the world title. As a young boy, Sanchez spent his days at the gym, situated near Parque Bustamante in the east end of Santiago, the Chilean capital. In the end, however, the lure of football proved too strong for him to resist.

Having played for some neighbourhood clubs, the young Sanchez was 12 when Universidad de Chile invited him to a trial. It was the moment that changed his life. Determined to build a team capable of fighting for the Chilean title, the board of La U decided to invest in their youth set-up. They developed their own training methods, using psychological tests to assess character and speed of reaction, qualities that the young Sanchez had acquired and developed in boxing.

The Blue Ballet

Sanchez’s fame soon began to spread in the Chilean game. Tales were told of his prodigious left foot, his net-breaking shots, and his powerfully struck corners. He made his first team debut with Los Azules (The Blues) at the age of 17. As he has remarked on many occasions: “Once I was in the starting XI, I never left it.”

He formed part of an exciting new Universidad de Chile line-up with the likes of Carlos Campos and Sergio Navarro, firing the dreams of the fans of a club whose one and only league title had come in 1940. Fourth in 1955 and runners-up in 1957, la U finally won their second league championship in 1959.

They ended that season by winning ten of their last 11 games, with Sanchez scoring 11 goals in a run that saw them pull level with Colo Colo at the top of the table on the very last day of the season.

Leonel Sanchez fights for the ball

The resulting championship play-off match generated the kind of expectation that had never been seen in Chilean football before. Colo Colo created plenty of chances but reckoned without Sanchez. He scored the goal that won the match, described by La Nación’s reporter at the game as “a fierce strike that bent the hands of Escuti backwards”. As well as winning a long-awaited title, it was a goal that made the rivalry between Universidad de Chile and Colo Colo what it is today: Chile’s gran clásico.

That enterprising Universidad side was promptly dubbed 'The New Blue Ballet', a nickname they inherited from the great Millonarios side that lit up Colombian football in the 1950s, a team that featured legends such as Adolfo Pedernera and Alfredo Di Stefano. Universidad’s long-term youth policy paid handsome dividends, with Sanchez and Co winning six league titles in all between 1959 and '69.

The Battle of Santiago

Sanchez replicated his scintillating club form for his country, making his international debut aged 19 against Brazil at the Maracana and scoring 24 goals in 84 appearances in a 13-year career with La Roja. He featured at two FIFA World Cups, playing a starring role at Chile 1962, where he scored four goals to share the Golden Boot with Vava and Garrincha of Brazil, Yugoslavia’s Drazen Jerkovic, Hungary’s Florian Albert, and Valentin Ivanov of Soviet Union.

Sanchez went into that 1962 tournament full of confidence, having scored 20 goals to help Universidad land another league crown. The No 11 was on target again in Chile’s opening match, scoring two clever goals to help them come from behind to beat Switzerland 3-1.

English referee Ken Aston tries to bring order as fighting breaks out during the group two match dubbed as "The Battle of Santiago".

The hosts’ next outing was against Italy and gave them the chance to reach the last eight and avenge an insult. A few weeks earlier, an Italian newspaper had said the host nation was rife with prostitution, illiteracy, and poverty.

Incensed, the Chilean players were keen to make their feelings known, not least Sanchez. A niggly, stop-start game was approaching half-time when the left winger was hacked to the ground by Italy’s Mario David. Showing his boxing prowess and fiery temperament, Sanchez leapt to his feet and landed a left hook on David’s jaw, sending him to the floor. “Hit Leonel and the only place you’re going is down,” said Sergio Navarro, La Roja’s captain at Chile 1962.

The infamous match, which became known as 'The Battle of Santiago', saw Gli Azzurri finish with nine players and Chile win 2-0 to book a place in the quarter-finals.

Brazil goalkeeper Gilmar is beaten by a penalty kick from Chile's Leonel Sanchez

Divine justice

Chile lost 2-0 to West Germany in their final group match, a result that left them facing reigning European champions Soviet Union in the quarter-finals. In the opening minutes, Chile were awarded a free-kick on the edge of the penalty area for a foul they believed had taken place inside the box. The right-footed Jorge Toro was the ideal candidate to take it, but Sanchez had other ideas. “Leave it to me,” El León told Toro. “I’ve got a feeling something’s going to happen.”

And happen it did, as Sanchez powered the ball around the wall and past a startled Lev Yashin in the Soviet goal. Nicknamed 'The Black Spider', the great keeper barely moved as the ball thundered into the back of the net. “Divine justice,” cried the great Chilean commentator Julio Martinez on the radio, two words that went down in the history of football in the country.

“They didn’t know that Chile had a guy called Leonel Sanchez who could hit the ball so hard,” said the goalscorer afterwards, not without irony. La Roja went on to win the match 2-1 and move into the semi-finals, to the surprise of many.

Though Sanchez scored his fourth goal of the tournament against Brazil in the semi-finals – from the penalty spot – it was not enough for the Chileans to avoid a 4-2 defeat, with Vava and Garrincha both scoring twice for the victors. Three days later, Chile beat Yugoslavia 1-0 to claim third place, the country’s best ever finish at the world finals.

El León continued to represent his country in the years that followed and also travelled to England 1966, where the Chileans went out in the group phase. On the domestic front, he carried on expressing himself and winning trophies with his beloved Universidad until the board made the surprising decision that the club no longer needed him.

He then spent a season with arch rivals Colo Colo, winning the league title with them in 1970, and had spells with Palestino and Ferroviarios before hanging up his boots in 1973.

Boxing’s loss was football’s gain, and Leonel Sanchez gave the game all he had: limitless talent, a fierce determination to succeed, and a divine left foot.

Leonel Sanchez, captain of Chile, shake hands with Dieter Erler, captain of East German during the 1966 FIFA World Cup.