Inside the Brilliant, Guarded and Unsatisfied Mind of Alexis Sanchez

Rob HuntFeatured Columnist IAugust 22, 2017

Chile's Alexis Sanchez attends a training session at the FC Strogino Stadium in Moscow, Russia, Saturday, June 24, 2017. Chile will play Australia in a Confederations Cup, Group B soccer match scheduled for Sunday, June 25, 2017. (AP Photo/Daria Isaeva)
Akyanyme for B/R

As July came to a close, Alexis Sanchez gave the British media two gifts.

Due back in London to start pre-season training, the Chilean striker posted a photograph on Instagram from Santiago. Looking down in the dumps alongside one of his dogs, the caption simply read: "sick." Having been granted time at home to shake off his illness, Sanchez eventually returned, where he was pictured working out at Arsenal's London Colney training ground—alone.

Sanchez's protractedand lonelyreturn to England fed perfectly into a media narrative that has steadily developed around him since the turn of the year. As Arsenal stumbled domestically and crashed out of Europe, he cut an increasingly agitated and frustrated figure. There was the tantrum he threw upon on being substituted against Swansea, the smirking on the bench as Bayern Munich humiliated his teammates and the incident at training that led to him being dropped from the starting XI for a trip to Anfield.

With no signs of progress over a new contract for a player whose current deal expires next summer and speculation mounting over a potential move to Manchester City or Paris Saint-Germain, the media wasted no time in depicting Sanchez as a troublemaker who wanted out. Former Gunners centre-back Martin Keown said Sanchez had been "overindulged," according to Daniel Zeqiri of the Telegraph, while Queens Park Rangers boss Ian Holloway told talkSport he was a "selfish pig."

The venom has been met with amusement back in his native Chile.

"The Alexis Sanchez that the English press have invented is a great caricature," Sanchez biographer Nicolas Olea says. "But he isn't nearly as despotic or as drastic as he's made out to be."

Despite the three seasons he spent at Barcelona and the last three at Arsenal, Sanchez remains something of an enigma. His reluctance to learn English has not made for a warm relationship with the British press, but then again, he never wanted a warm relationship. Nelson Tapia, the goalkeeper who won 73 caps for Chile, was reaching the end of his career in 2005 when he cautioned Sanchez about the perils of media coverage. At the time, Sanchez was breaking through at his first club side, Cobreloa.

"We immediately advised him to protect his private life, and not to speak with journalists," Tapia recounted in Olea's book, Alexis: El Camino de un Crack. Sanchez has followed those words ever since, keeping his interactions with the media to a minimum.

That also extends to how he carries himself with teammates.

"He's well-liked and admired within the Chile setup, but he doesn't have any great friends on the team," Olea explains. "Of course, he's played with some of these guys for many years and he feels close to them for that reason. But he's not best friends with any of them."

Danilo Diaz, who co-authored the forward's biography, concurs: "People on the inside [of the Chile setup] tell me that all the players admire him but do not consider him to be a great friend. He's not really that close with the others. He often trains alone, for example, and he's the only one without tattoos."

While Sanchez is not the social heartbeat of the national team, he also is not considered an outcast.

"During the Confederations Cup," Olea says, "all the players were having a game of Mario Kart. And everyone was playing, apart from Alexis."

No media firestorm ensued, however, as seems to happen with much of what Sanchez does now.

Alexis Sanchez's teammates with the Chilean national team are content allowing him the freedom not to participate in every team activity.
Alexis Sanchez's teammates with the Chilean national team are content allowing him the freedom not to participate in every team activity.Martin Meissner/Associated Press/Associated Press

"If [that] happened at Arsenal, there would be outrage in the press: 'He's not taking part, he has no friends,' and so on," Olea says. "But in general, people from the north of the country are like that. Very different from, say, an Arturo Vidal, who is always putting on a show. Alexis is happier spending quiet time with his family and loved ones."

Juan Carlos Berliner was the director of Chile's national team when Sanchez came to prominence. He remembers a player who "got on well with everyone" and who "used to make everyone laugh." Berliner also underlines the importance of the forward's roots in Tocopilla, a mining town in the north of Chile.

"Alexis has a very special bond with his hometown and always does what he can to help the people of Tocopilla," he says. "It's a small city in the north of Chile, with a lot of poverty. There was one time, for instance, when the government had promised the city a hospital that was then never delivered. Alexis was the one who led the campaign to put pressure on the government to make good on their promise."

Though Sanchez may feel a close attachment to the town, he also resolved at an early age to break free from the dusty, arid corner of Chile known as Devil's Corner.

"It wasn't easy to get money," Sanchez told El Pais in 2013 (via FourFourTwo). "I'd say to my mum: 'Don't worry, I'll be a footballer and everything will work out—we'll have money,' and she would laugh. I would promise gifts, cars and houses to my friends, too."

This mix of determination and ambition shaped Sanchez's character from an early age.

"Here in Tocopilla, Alexis became known immediately," Sanchez's first coach, Juan Segovia, told Jeremy Wilson of the Telegraph. "Those who saw him realized he was one of a kind." 

Among other places, he would be invited to the local prison to play against guards who were well into their 20s and 30s, as Olea wrote about in his book.

Sanchez's rise since those days has been marked by a single-mindedness to play football and play it well.

"He doesn't like going out, isn't interested in nightclubs," explains Berliner. "From a very young age, the kid wanted to be the best player in the world. And for him, being at nightclubs isn't compatible with being the best in the world."

One of the player's few known hobbies outside of football is to watch Japanese manga series. Fittingly, his favourite is Captain Tsubasaor Super Campeones in Spanish—which tells the story of a young footballer who becomes a global star and moves to Europe.

"When Alexis was at Barcelona, he had the whole collection, every series," Olea explains. "And I think that Alexis has always related his own career with that fictitious world. He sees himself as a cartoon character, running forever on a never-ending pitch, in pursuit of his ultimate goal."

Ironically, the humble origins some Chilean players like Sanchez come from may contribute to their sense of fearlessness and even arrogance, believes Berliner, who is also a sports psychologist. Having already taken on and overcome poverty in their lives, they feel that anything is possible.

Sanchez Scored 21 Goals in His Final Season at Barcelona in 2013/14
Sanchez Scored 21 Goals in His Final Season at Barcelona in 2013/14Alex Livesey/Getty Images

But this is not to say that Sanchez doesn't understand the value of a team. Having been a precocious and somewhat individualistic player as a teenager, Sanchez seemed to turn a corner in his career at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, Olea says.

"He was consumed by a yearning to score a goal at that World Cup, and I think it was at that moment that he realized he couldn't win a World Cup all on his own," Olea adds. "He needed teammates around him and to be more selfless in his play. And this selflessness was something that he embraced when, a year later, he left for Barcelona and found himself surrounded by players like Messi, Xavi and Iniesta."

Over the years, as he has learned to make sacrifices to his own game for the collective good, Sanchez has become increasingly demanding of his teammates in return. In November 2011, five younger members of the squad, including Arturo Vidal and Jorge Valdivia, caused a public outrage by returning to the Chilean team camp drunk in the early hours of the morning, just three days before a crucial World Cup qualifier in Uruguay. A team meeting was called to clear the air. The 22-year-old Sanchez, though, sided with the older members of the squad and openly admonished his supposed friends for their irresponsible behavior.

"But even now, he's not the leader of the national team," Olea says. "That's for Claudio Bravo, Arturo Vidal and Gary Medel. Alexis does his job, but he doesn't shoulder the responsibility for carrying the team."

Yet some in England argue that, at 28 years of age and as a relative veteran on a young team, Sanchez should be expected to show more maturity and leadership at Arsenal.

After Sanchez struggled to find his place as a youngster among a galaxy of stars at Barcelona, Arsene Wenger elevated him to centre stage. He repaid that move with 53 goals in 103 Premier League appearances, but he has yet to find his footing as a leader, as last season's outbursts and controversies attest.

Nonetheless, it is hard to argue with another ex-Gunners centre-back, Sol Campbell, who told ESPN FC's Tom Marshall: "[Arsenal need] more Sanchez-type of mentality players, from defenders to up front. I think that for me, they need more players like that on the pitch."

Unfortunately for Arsenal, Sanchez already appears to have made up his mind over his future.

"I get the impression that he wants to leave," Berliner says. "The guy clearly wants to play on a team that is competing for the highest honours. To do so, he has to move on."

With Arsenal struggling to stay atop the Premier League and Sanchez struggling to fit in with his teammates, the two may be headed for a parting before the end of the season.
With Arsenal struggling to stay atop the Premier League and Sanchez struggling to fit in with his teammates, the two may be headed for a parting before the end of the season.Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images

By the time the next transfer window comes around, Sanchez will have turned 29, which may also play a role in his impending decision.

"It would surprise me to see Alexis resigned to accept his fate that he will never win anything at Arsenal," Olea says. "The scenario that is more in keeping with his personality is that he will rebel, that he will want to leave and seek silverware."

For his part, Wenger seems in no mood to sell Sanchez. According to Diaz, the rumblings in Santiago suggest that the player's agent has recommended that he play out his contract before moving on as a free agent next summer.

Another plausible scenario would see him start the season at Arsenal to test the potential of playing alongside new signing Alexandre Lacazette. Come Christmas, should Arsenal's prospects for silverware appear bleak, he stands no danger of being cup-tied for the Champions League and would therefore be a highly attractive proposition for clubs looking to reinforce their squads for the latter stages of Europe's premier competition.

As is the case with everything that Sanchez does, he is likely to base his decision purely on what matters most to him. In other words: fulfilling his destiny in football and taking care of those closest to him.

"It's just being true to himself," concludes Olea. "I've got press reports dating back to when he was 12, 13, 14 years old in which he says that he wants to win titles, be a World Cup winner, be the best player in the world. That dream is stronger than his loyalty to a club where he has spent three years of a 13-year career. When you buy Alexis, you have to accept that you're buying a player with that mentality."


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