There are few centre-forwards in the history of the game who can match Hugo Sanchez’s record. The top scorer in the Spanish league in five separate seasons and the leading marksman in Mexico once, he also won a European Golden Shoe, represented his country at three FIFA World Cup™ finals, and was named in Real Madrid’s all-time greatest XI. And as if that were not enough, his unique version of the overhead-kick also has its very own name.
What many people do not know is that Hugol, to use just one of his nicknames, started out as a left winger with his first club Pumas UNAM before his equally legendary coach Bora Milutinovic decided to make him his attacking spearhead. The rest, as they say, is history.
Born in Mexico City on 11 July 1958, Sanchez was relatively small for a striker, but made up for his diminutive stature with a gift for acrobatics, which he had honed as a budding gymnast during his school days. Ever the perfectionist, the spring-heeled Mexican would also train tirelessly, practising his trademark moves again and again until he had perfected them.
The young Sanchez also had football in his blood. His father, a centre-forward himself, played semi-professional football and his older brother Horacio played in goal for several Mexican clubs and for his country at the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament Munich 1972.
A precocious talent
It was in watching his brother train with the Mexico amateur team that the 15-year-old Sanchez got involved in the game. A more-than-interested bystander, he would plead to be allowed to join the training sessions. After being turned down repeatedly on account of his age, the insistent teenager finally got his wish. Quickly impressing the coaching staff with his skills, it was not long before he was invited to join the team.
After helping them to win the Cannes Youth Tournament in 1975, he then starred at the Toulon Tournament, his performances at both competitions earning him another nickname in Niño de Oro (Golden Boy). They also led to a first professional contract with Pumas UNAM and a place in the Mexico team at the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament Montreal 1976. That same year he won his maiden league title with the university club, a triumph that was shortly followed by his debut for the full national team.
Two years later, and still only 19, he continued his dizzying ascent by appearing at Argentina 1978, where he was powerless to prevent Mexico losing all three of their group games, their worst ever World Cup showing. Recovering quickly from that disappointment, Sanchez continued his steep rise to prominence, becoming the Mexican league’s leading marksman in 1979 and contributing another hatful of goals as Pumas took the title in 1981.
His feats in front of goal soon had Spanish giants Atletico Madrid knocking on his door. And it was a call the upwardly mobile striker would not ignore.
Fame in Spain
It was virtually unheard of at the time for Mexican players to try their luck in Europe, and Sanchez would struggle in his first season with Los Colchoneros, spending most of his time on the bench and scoring a mere eight goals. Rumours of an immediate return to Mexico abounded, and were fanned by El Tri’s surprise elimination in the qualifiers for Spain 1982.
Yet, with the support of Atleti president Vicente Calderon, Sanchez would bring his dream to fruition, going on to score 54 goals for the club in 111 games and winning his first Pichichi (Spain’s top scorer award) in the 1984/85 season with a haul of 19 goals. That campaign would end in controversy, however, when Atletico’s Mexican idol crossed the Spanish capital to join arch-rivals Real Madrid.
It was to be a match made in heaven. “What always impressed me about the club is that everyone, from the President right down to the cleaners, has the same objective: to be champions,” he commented. And a champion is what Sanchez became with Los Blancos, winning five straight league titles and four more Pichichis.
The Mexican magician did not score ordinary goals either. As fleet of mind as he was of foot, and invariably in the right place at the right time, Sanchez conjured up some spectacular finishes during his prolific career. Though deadly from long distance and in the air, he became best known for his Huguinas, the spectacular bicycle-kicks with which he would surprise opposing goalkeepers from virtually any angle and distance. His somersault goal celebration also set trends and was invariably followed by a trademark fist pump.
The 1989-90 season was to be the highpoint of his career. In equalling the all-time Spanish league scoring record of 38 goals, he won the European Golden Shoe as the continent’s leading marksman. That impressive tally included the finest strike of his career, a flawlessly executed, gravity-defying overhead-kick against Logrones. The goal became known in Spanish footballing circles as the Señor Gol, which translates as “great goal” and, very neatly, also reads as Logrones backwards.
His achievements that season partially made up for Mexico’s suspension from Italy 1990, just one of several setbacks Sanchez would experience with the national side. He scored just one goal in eight World Cup finals matches and missed a penalty against Paraguay at Mexico 1986. Happier times would come at the 1993 Copa America, where, despite having turned 35, he made a vital contribution as Mexico claimed a historic runners-up spot.
By that time, Mexico’s greatest footballing export had returned home. A serious injury had kept him sidelined during the 1990/91 campaign, with Madrid deciding to sell him to Mexican big guns America the following season. A string of moves to other clubs on both sides of the Atlantic followed, although the ageing gunslinger’s goalscoring instinct would remain undimmed throughout.
The scorer of an incredible 479 goals in 849 games, he retired at Atletico Celaya at the age of 39. Fittingly, in a tribute match organised by Real Madrid prior to his retirement, Hugol went out in the best possible style, scoring one of his signature goals, a flying scissor-kick.
Date of birth: 11 July 1958
Place of birth: Mexico City
Clubs: UNAM (1976-1981), San Diego Sockers (1979-80), Atletico Madrid (1982-85), Real Madrid (1985-92), America (1992/93), Rayo Vallecano (1993/94), Atlante (1994/95), FC Linz (1995/96), FC Dallas (1996), Atletico Zelaya (1996/97).
National team: 58 matches (29 goals)
3 FIFA world cups appareances (1978, 1986 and 1994)
2 Mexican leagues (1976/77, 1980/81)
5 Spain leagues (1985/86 - 1989/90)
1 top scorer in mexico (1978/1979)
5 pichichis - top scorer in Spanish league (1984/85, 1985/86, 1986/87, 1987/88, 1989/90)
1 Golden boot (1989/90)
One of the former Mexican striker’s many nicknames is Pentapichichi, in recognition of the five top scorer awards he won in Spain, one of them with Atletico Madrid and four with Real Madrid. To date, he is the only player to have won the award four times in a row.
Hugo Sanchez was named in Real Madrid’s Team of the 20th Century, alongside legends of the stature of Francisco Gento, Emilio Butragueno and Alfredo Di Stefano.
Sanchez has had a largely successful coaching career since retiring as a player. He has won the Mexican league twice with Pumas, coached Mexico's national team and has also taken charge of Spanish club Almeria.
Hugo Sanchez is credited as the creator of the scorpion kick, later popularised by Colombian goalkeeper Rene Higuita. Though he regularly practised the trick in training, the Mexican striker never scored a goal with it in an official match.