One of the many fascinating aspects of football is the tension between individual and collective glory. The team wins, but some of its members are more important to the triumph than others. This tension was a part of Chile's historic first Copa America win.
When the final whistle blew on their semi-final, it was an obvious moment of celebration for the Chile players. They had beaten Peru 2-1 and were through to their first Copa final since 1987, within touching distance of, at last, having something to put in the trophy cabinet.
Goalkeeper Claudio Bravo may have been the captain; tough defender Gary Medel, with his pit bull-like determination, may have been the one the fans could most easily relate to.
But Sanchez was the one who was going to thrill them, who would twist opposing defences inside out and get the crowd on its feet. True to his nature, Sanchez poured his heart and soul into the challenge. But try as he might, things were not quite turning out the way he expected. He was unlucky in the second game against Mexico, when a perfectly legitimate goal was ruled out for offside. In the next match, against Bolivia, he finally got onto the scoresheet, guiding a header inside the far post.
But the real stuff was the knockout games. And the quarter-final, a tense battle against Uruguay, was not his finest match. Afterward, he complained of not feeling sharp, that he had not felt the usual spring in his legs. It was hardly a surprising observation. In previous months, as he chased every ball on those Premier League grounds, there was always a fear that he might not have enough gas left in the tank when his country needed him most. But perhaps the Peru semi-final would turn out differently for him.
He had his moments. Chile's opening goal came when he cut in from the left and hit a cross-cum-shot. That can be a nightmare for the 'keeper because he has to watch the arriving runner (in this case Charles Aranguiz) and keep an eye on the trajectory of the ball—which in this case brought it back off the post to be bundled over the line by Eduardo Vargas.
But it was not his game. The headlines all belonged to Vargas, who blasted home a wonderful winner in the second half. It was his fourth goal of the tournament. Sanchez was still stuck on one. The tournament was not going the way that Sanchez had spent months dreaming and imagining it would. And so, at the end of the game, while his team-mates celebrated with the crowd, he turned his back and walked off the field.
It was an action that was noticed and criticised by the Chilean press. The next day, Jose Miguelez, sports editor of the La Tercera newspaper, wrote: "Alexis does not analyse the matches in the light of his team has done, but following the criteria of his own individual performance. It is football as interested in the first person—where 'I' is more important than 'we.' The worst thing is that his low level of performance is eating him up."
The same newspaper conducted an interview with Jose Sulantay, the coach who groomed Sanchez, Medel, Arturo Vidal and Mauricio Isla at under-20 level in 2007—they finished third in that year's U-20 World Cup in Canada, the first sign that an interesting generation was blooming in Chilean football.
"I don't think Alexis is in bad shape," said Sulantay. "But I see him as a little frustrated. He was dreaming of showing the same form that made him one of the best players in Europe last season." And, fascinatingly, Sulantay added that "his level of performance is being affected by the battle that he fights out with Arturo Vidal to be the best player in the Chile side. Vidal has scored a few goals, and Alexis wanted to score a goal from another planet to compete on the same level."
This offers an intriguing window into the complex subject of team dynamics, the contest to win a greater share of a glory that is achieved collectively.
Sulantay knows both players, had both in his starting lineup and would seem to offer a well-qualified perspective. Evidence that he is correct comes from the aftermath of the incident earlier in the tournament when Vidal crashed his Ferrari in a drink-driving accident. The following morning, there was speculation that the player might be axed from the squad. Coach Jorge Sampaoli was adamant Vidal was staying, though.
When Sampaoli held a press conference to explain his decision, Sanchez made a point of being alongside him.
"I asked to come here to clear things up and draw a line under the subject," said Sanchez. "There have been no internal fights, no one wants him to be thrown out of the squad, all the players are right behind him. And I said to him, 'you've really got to tear it up on the pitch.' I'm sure that he'll do it."
This, then, was Sanchez the leader, Sanchez speaking on behalf of the group, Sanchez offering support but also demanding sacrifice from his troubled team-mate—and, in a sense, perhaps his rival as well.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong in this type of dual relationship. One of the big secrets of The Beatles, for example, was the fact that John Lennon and Paul McCartney were simultaneously co-operating and competing. It is only a problem if individuals in the same collective start singing from different song sheets, if the competition becomes stronger than the co-operation.
In the case of Chile, there was just that flicker of danger, that moment at the end of the semi-final when Sanchez did not seem to be in harmony with his team-mates. It is, though, easier to keep people in line for the short duration of a tournament. After all, a shot at glory was just five days away.
But the final, too, was not his game. After all the hopes, it was a disappointing affair for the star attacking players on both sides, a 0-0 draw that occasionally spluttered but failed to spark. The 120 minutes were for more prosaic virtues—the strongest candidate for man of the match was Charles Aranguiz, the motor of the Chile midfield, a quiet, admirably versatile runner rather than a footballing thoroughbred.
Sanchez had a couple of big moments—in the second half, he met a fine Aranguiz chipped pass with a volley on the swivel that went narrowly wide of the far post. And he had the best opportunity of extra time, charging away down the right channel on a counter-attack, but under pressure from Pablo Zabaleta, he sent his shot over the bar.
Once again, he had not been able to tip the balance. But then came the penalty shootout. And as destiny would have it, the chance to clinch the title fell to Chile's No. 7. There is no way this could have been scripted. Sanchez was the fourth Chilean to step up. Usually, it is the fifth man facing the all-or-nothing situation. But Chile had scored from all three of their kicks, while two Argentinians had missed. If Sanchez scored, the Copa was Chile's.
It was not a make-or-break moment in the shootout—Sanchez could miss and the fifth Chilean would still have another go at clinching things—but it was a huge moment for Sanchez.
A year earlier, he had missed in the shootout against Brazil in the second round of the World Cup. Chile lost that day, but Sanchez had played well and scored. This time, he had not lived up to expectations. Another miss, then, would have an effect on his reputation in the eyes of his countrymen.
This was not the time for a great player to play safe, to be happy with half measures. It was the time for something dramatic, for Sanchez to make a statement of his own worth. And so he duelled with the eyes of Argentina 'keeper Sergio Romero, saw that Romero was committed to diving left and dinked a subtle little shot down the middle, a lovely artistic touch to seal the title.
In the post-match press conference, Sampaoli said that Sanchez had not practiced that kind of penalty in training. It was a spur-of-the-moment thing, the response of a wonderfully talented footballer to the drama of circumstances when something mundane would not be good enough.
And it provided Alexis Sanchez with a wonderful moment of revenge or redemption for the frustrations he went through during the tournament. Whenever clips of Chile's first title are played—as they will be constantly on TV in his homeland—the fact that he fell short of expectations in the 2015 Copa will be forgotten. But the moment when he made sure of victory with his subtle little penalty will be remembered time and time again.
Tim Vickery has been covering Copa America on location in Chile. All quotes translated by the author unless otherwise noted.