As a young boy heading to bed, Carlos Sanchez would try to avoid thinking about the fact that he had been threatened by a revolver earlier in the day while kicking a ball around. Many nights, he and his four brothers would struggle to get to sleep with just a glass of powdered milk filling their bellies.
At the age of eight, he saw his father abandon his mother and the rest of the family. Life at his uncle’s house – where, like everyone else who lived in similar buildings in deprived areas of Montevideo, they were all squeezed in like sardines – was anything but easy. If he and his friends crossed into neighbouring suburbs to play football, they would often be met with an intimidating welcome, involving stones or even guns.
“In those situations, I just tried to remember that I was playing football with my friends, and that’s what I wanted. Thinking back to those times and now being here today is pretty special,” the Uruguayan told FIFA.com.
The “here” that one of River Plate’s key figures over the past year and a half is referring to is the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2015. “It’s a unique tournament that I’m enjoying to the fullest because I don’t know if I’ll get a chance to experience it again,” he said in the run-up to the Buenos Aires club’s upcoming semi-final clash with Sanfrecce Hiroshima.
It is fitting that Sanchez will perform at club football’s highest level with River Plate’s iconic diagonal red sash across his chest. Back in the 1990s, on the dusty pitches of the Uruguayan capital, where the hearts of budding young footballers tend to belong to the likes of Penarol and Nacional, he loved to play in a River jersey and emulate the goal celebrations of their erstwhile star, Marcelo Salas, with one knee on the ground and a finger pointed towards the sky.
“When we played, I would pick River for their goal celebrations more than anything. I loved celebrating goals and I always used to copy Salas’ one.”
He was such an ardent fan that when he went for a trial at Montevideo-based Liverpool he even wore a River t-shirt. Of the 300 boys in contention, only two made the grade. For Sanchez, it was the beginning of a career that almost went off the rails when he was 18, due to torn cruciate ligaments and two years on the sidelines, and that has now, 13 years later, culminated in the most successful period he has experienced to date.
“It’s pretty crazy. Turning up in a t-shirt to try out for a team, managing to get in, and then coming here and experiencing all this – these things do happen.”
What cannot be attributed to chance but rather to the battling qualities he developed as a boy is the level at which the attacking midfielder has been playing.
Sanchez signed for River in 2011 at the lowest moment in their history, with the club having recently been relegated to the Argentinian second division. He contributed fully to their return to the top flight, but a few months after the arrival of Ramon Diaz at the helm, an off-form Sanchez was loaned out to Mexican outfit Puebla.
He returned in mid-2014 and was informed by Marcelo Gallardo, who had just taken up the reins, that he was very much part of his plans. However, things did not click into place straight away and at the start of Gallardo’s reign he found himself on the bench.
“I don’t know if you noticed that yesterday I asked a striker to play in your normal position,” the coach told him the following day, as he describes himself in his biography, Gallardo Monumental.
“It damaged my pride; it hurt me not to play in the game. The chat I had with him later was extremely useful. It wasn’t really that I needed to pull up my socks, but he made me understand quite a few things that I needed to know. And I just tried to improve every day so that he would start to play me,” recounted the Montevideo native.
It clearly had an effect, as from that point onwards, Sanchez made the right midfielder slot his own, making surprise runs into the penalty box and incisively attacking empty space, as well as taking on his fair share of defensive work.
In addition, he began chipping in with some important goals for Los Millonarios, such as the two that captured the Recopa Sudamericana and several during their Copa Libertadores campaign, including a crucial penalty against Boca Juniors in the Round of 16, the goal that launched a quarter-final fightback against Cruzeiro in Brazil, and the second of the return leg of the final versus Tigres (Mexico).
“Maybe my maturity helps me to better make use of my abilities on the pitch now,” said the late bloomer, who, at the age of 31, has recently established himself in Uruguay’s starting line-up, having never been called up at any youth category and having only made his international debut 13 months ago.
While he will continue to compete with La Celeste, the Club World Cup will mark his farewell appearances with River. In January, he will move to Mexican heavyweights Monterrey, so this tournament represents his last chance to lift another trophy with his current employers.
“We’re really enjoying ourselves, because we have the chance to crown an excellent year and make history. It’s going to be a real wrench to leave; I’m trying not to think about it too much,” he concluded.