The Little Squirrel
That Could

Alexis Sanchez was not an instant success. He learned football in the streets of northern Chile, and now he is a star in the Premier League. By Anthony Lopopolo

WHEN HE IS LOOMING over a free kick, preparing for a big moment, Alexis Sanchez makes sure his shorts are all rolled up. Sometimes he pulls up just one side of his shorts, perhaps for good luck, but then one time he had a staff member roll up ‘em just right while playing with Chile during the World Cup.

Teammates make fun of him all the time. They did it at Barcelona, where they called him little nicknames. And now at Arsenal, they’re mocking those shorts. Santi Cazorla posed for a photo with Alexis with his shorts tucked in. The Chilean took it and laughed.

He has loved his teammates wherever he has gone and made a habit of learning from them. With Barcelona, Alexis watched the way Lionel Messi received the ball, the way he thinks, and he studied the way Xavi moved and the way Andres Iniesta would burst with speed.

Later in that World Cup, before a big Round of 16 match against Brazil, Alexis stopped and hugged Dani Alves and Neymar in the tunnel. It wasn’t a token handshake. Neymar gave him a kiss on the cheek and the three of them looked like they were reminiscing.

There is so much respect for Alexis Sanchez, and he gives it right back, and that is probably because he knows he is lucky and because he never forgets where he comes from.

Alexis grew up in a small house made of wood and corrugated iron in a small corner — Devil’s Corner — of northern Chile. The town is Tocopilla, a port with a population of 24,000, where there are three options: mining, fishing and football. The miners would make a few hundred dollars per month but the fish are plentiful. There is a power plant chugging in one part of the town and a shipping plant in the other. Alexis saw this and chose football.

“The whole city knew me for football,” he told Spanish newspaper El Pais. “Football opened doors in my life and has allowed me to help my family.”

He was on the streets at the age of 6, trying to help his mother get by. He did not like watching his mother work so hard. Martina did several odd jobs to support the family after her husband left. Alexis was a baby.

So he washed cars, even for just a few pennies. He did somersaults in the streets and boxed for entertainment, this malnourished and skinny kid doing whatever he could. “He was like a little gymnast,” his brother Humberto told The Sun newspaper, “hurling himself all over the place.”

Alexis Sanchez has played for six clubs, including a stint with Chilean side Colo-Colo in 2006 and 2007.

When he could not make enough, little Alexis knocked on doors asking for bread, and the neighbours would give him whatever they could spare.

Meanwhile, his mother Martina sold flowers and travelled 50 miles a day to sell fish. She also did some cleaning in the same school as her son. Alexis hid away. He did not want to see her working. Sometimes he even skipped school and instead played football.

He did not watch any games growing up — her really didn’t like to. He loved Ronaldo, the real one, and he wore the No. 9 with Barcelona because of him. But he never really had the ambition to be like any of his heroes, perhaps because he did not watch them.

“The only role model I have is my mother,” he said. “I just liked to play, and that they might watch me.

Alexis learned football on the streets. He played barefoot in the mud and on dirt pitches. He was the one who climbed the trees and scaled the roofs of houses to retrieve the balls that they lost. They called him ardilla — The Squirrel.

He spent his childhood playing against older, bigger players, mostly without supervision. They used to kick him because they could not stop him. But Alexis always came back the next day. That’s where he learned to be tough, and when he played the game, he forgot all his problems.

YOU CAN SEE HIS PAST in the way he plays now. He runs and runs, but not without purpose, like he is playing for that next meal, playing with real hunger, defending deep and attacking high, chasing every ball as if it will be lost forever. Alexis is a hard worker and a goal scorer, and he does not let up. “He has been like an animal in training,” said Arsenal defender Kieran Gibbs, seeing him for the first time in August. “He’s everywhere. He just doesn’t stop running.”

But when he first came to Arsenal, there was still something for Alexis to prove, even though he had already made a life that wasn’t about mining or fishing. Gibbs said his new teammate came in as if he wasn’t world class already. And yet he just came off his best season with Barcelona. He scored 19 goals in La Liga, including the audacious winner in El Clasico against Real Madrid last year, a chip up and above the goalkeeper, and that rocket of a goal that could have won the title in the last game of the season against Atletico Madrid.

But Alexis does not forget where he comes from.

Teams still try to kick him, just like they try to kick Messi. It doesn’t matter. He still tries to dribble around them anyway, and he succeeds. Alexis is still very much like a squirrel, tough to track, going this way and that.

Instead of jumping patios and walls to get balls gone wayward, Alexis is skipping over defenders and making £150,000 a week. But he is still enjoying himself, like he did when he was a kid. Except now he is 5-foot-7 and he has muscles all over. He takes off his shirt when he scores and he wears real Nikes.

His first pair of boots came as a gift from the mayor of his hometown. His mother couldn’t afford any, and they couldn’t afford the fee to enrol in the youth school at Club Arauco. But they let him off — he was too good. Here began the long road to the top.

Alexis could have made the jump to the Premier League much sooner. Manchester United scouted him back in 2006 but Udinese won his signature. That alone meant something. Udinese usually take their time scouting players. They cannot afford to make a mistake.

But Alexis Sanchez was different. They saw tape and sent a scout to the other side of the world and ended up spending £2 million. They would later get £25 million from Barcelona.

Udinese sent him on loan twice, to Colo-Colo in Santiago and River Plate in Argentina. Alexis became the youngest player to feature in a Copa Libertadores match. He won trophies. So Udinese called him back in 2008.

At first he was too showy. He held on to the ball too long and he was overconfident. He had called himself a great player in an interview before (now he is careful with what he says to the press). But he came to life in 2010–11, his final season in Italy. Alexis partnered with Antonio Di Natale and they scored 35 goals between them in Serie A.

Alexis has played for six pro clubs, including Arsenal. He is a kind of journeyman; he has made gradual progress each year. Clubs have spent over £60 million for him. Back in the 1990s, when Alexis was performing tricks in the streets, he could barely collect a few coins.

He gives hundreds of thousands of dollars back to Tocopilla. He wanted real grass pitches for the kids, and so he donated the cash. And he makes the trip back home for Christmas every year.

Of course, there is a street named after him, probably one of the many streets he played on. Last December, he gave toys the kids, like a veritable Santa Claus on a parade through one of the desert streets.

Because he never forgets where he comes from.

Anthony Lopopolo is a freelance writer for KICKTV. He has previously done work for FourFourTwo, the National Post and A Football Report. He can reach him on Twitter @sportscaddy.