Alexis Sanchez is no ordinary player. Quick, agile and outrageously talented, the 19-year-old from Tocopillo in northern Chile is capable of bringing an entire crowd to their feet with his delectable ball skills. Such is the potential of El Niño Maravilla (the Boy Wonder), as he was dubbed at Colo Colo, that many feel his presence in the national side could at last bring an end to Chile's absence from the FIFA World Cup™ finals.
The subject of increasing column inches in the press, the youngster is highly valued by Argentine club side River Plate, who hope to extend his loan spell from Italy's Udinese. Of course, the front man is no less popular back in his homeland, where fans of La Roja are hoping he can work his magic with the national team. As for the player himself, for now he is content to let his football do the talking.
A class apart
In South America, where promising youngsters can be whisked abroad at a very early age, Alexis Sanchez was already on the fast track to stardom in his mid-teens. In fact, Nelson Acosta, La Roja's coach when they last graced a FIFA World Cup back in 1998, handed the player his top-flight debut with Chilean side Cobreloa at just 16 years and five months.
Sanchez also got his first taste of international football around that time after being called into the country's U-17 side for the South American Championship by Jose Sulantay. Indeed, it was the same coach who handed the striker a pivotal role for La Rojita at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Canada 2007. After 40 goals during his time at Cobreloa, the Chilean was snapped up by Udinese, a team with a reputation for converting promising starlets into household names. However, in this instance, club officials thought it prudent to let the teenager develop closer to home, loaning him out to one of Chile's top sides, Colo Colo.
"He's a striker capable of weaving past three of four defenders and winning you games. Single-handedly, he can unlock any defensive formation," Arturo Vidal tells FIFA.com. The Bayer Leverkusen man knows Sanchez better than most, having played with him at Colo Colo, where the pair won two league titles and finished runners-up in the 2007 Copa Sudamericana. Equally effusive is Claudio Borghi, his coach at the time in Santiago: "He's capable of finding his way though any rearguard and can make the difference for you. In training, he does things with the ball you wouldn't believe."
A year after leaving the Chilean game, the 19-year-old's eye-catching moves seem straight out of a video game. He possesses a surfeit of skills, commendable self-sacrifice and the obligatory personalised boots, and his fans insist his tricks and fancy footwork are every bit as good as those of Cristiano Ronaldo.
The new Pato?
It came as no surprise when, after a standout display at Canada 2007, in which Chile finished third, he earned a loan move to River Plate, the club where his childhood hero Marcelo Salas made such an impact. The Udinese directors felt the Buenos Aires club was the ideal setting for him to develop further, and they were not mistaken either. El Niño Maravilla was soon producing the goods and winning over the notoriously demanding Millonario fans, who helped him battle back from a serious ankle injury that sidelined him for more than three months.
Although his form has not been as consistent since returning from injury, he seems to have sufficiently impressed his owners back in Italy. Discussing squad changes recently, Udinese president Gianpaolo Pozzo said: "If we were to lose Antonio Di Natale, we could rest easy as Sanchez could be recalled. He's doing very well in Argentina and could be our new (Alexandre) Pato." And just to make sure no one poaches their young star, the club have slapped a 20 million euro price tag on him.
It is not only the Italian club who are looking forward to the return of Sanchez. Chile coach Marcelo Bielsa is anxious to get the teenager involved in the qualifiers for South Africa 2010. "Alexis is one of the many good players produced by Chile in recent times who I am confident will enhance the quality of our team."
Chile's next two games involve tricky away trips to Bolivia and Venezuela, where it is hoped the forward will play a key role in breaching the home defences. "He's a different class of player with some spectacular footballing attributes. Hopefully, he'll continue to dazzle with his football in Argentina and our national team," says Ivan Zamorano, the man who captained La Roja at France 98.
After watching the likes of 'Bam Bam' and Salas work their magic as a boy, the time has now come for Sanchez to try to emulate them on the international stage.