"I think I'm La U's biggest icon and one of Chile's best ever forwards."
These are the oft-repeated words of Leonel Sanchez (Santiago, 1936), uttered with pride that nevertheless never overshadows his humility. They say that there has never been another left foot like his in Chilean football. The 40-yard thunderbolt in 1959 that forever changed the rivalry between Universidad de Chile (or La U, as they are nicknamed) and Colo-Colo, and the free-kick that caught out Lev Yashin at the FIFA World Cup Chile 1962™, make for compelling evidence. More than 500 appearances, 200 goals and countless unforgettable moments further attest to his greatness.
Sanchez brought attributes that had been lacking in the country's football scene before his emergence: force of personality, rivalry, a sense of belonging and entertainment. Before this, boxing had dominated national interest in the early 20th century, in part because it conveyed an image of heroism in the face of world powerhouses that football had seemed incapable of.
Incidentally, he might have turned out to be a decent boxer himself. As a kid, Sanchez would spend his days down by Bustamante Park, on the east side of Santiago. His father, a prizefighter, used to look after a gym there, where stars of the ring such as Arturo Godoy trained. However, the effect of hour upon hour surrounded by punchbags could not capture the youngster's imagination in the same way that the ball did.
At the age of 12, after knocking around local neighbourhood clubs for a while, he accepted an invitation for a trial with La U, a decision that would change his life. The board had resolved to invest in the youth ranks with the aim of producing a group equipped to challenge at the highest level in the long term. They introduced a comprehensive development and assessment system that included psychological tests gauging character and resilience, traits that young Leonel had inherited from boxing and put to good use.
The Blue Ballet
His name soon had tongues wagging in the club's offices. The lad with the prodigious left foot, who could virtually burst the net with his rockets and delivered corners with such venom that they could end up on the opposite side of the pitch, made his first-team debut for Los Azules (The Blues) aged just 17. "I never relinquished my spot after that," he often recalls.
The new kids on the block, including the likes of Sanchez, Carlos Campos and Sergio Navarro, quickly kindled dreams among a fan base that had been starved of glory since 1940. After finishing fourth in the league in 1955, they were runners-up in 1957, before capturing the title in 1959.
The kids grew up fast. That first triumphant season, La U won ten of their last 11 fixtures, Sanchez scoring 11 times in this spell, to claw back a deficit and finish level on points with Colo-Colo at the top of the table.
It all came down to a play-off, which generated more hype than ever seen before for a football game in Chile. Los Albos had their fair share of chances, but Sanchez proved the difference-maker. As a match report in the newspaper La Nación put it the following day, "A Leonel Sanchez screamer was too hot for [goalkeeper Misael] Escuti's hands." This piledriver ended a 19-year trophy drought for La U and instantly turned the derby between Universidad de Chile and Colo Colo into Chilean football's Clásico.
It was not long before the team's attractive brand of attacking football led to them being baptised the new Ballet Azul, or Blue Ballet, a throwback to Colombian outfit Millonarios' star-studded side featuring Adolfo Pedernera and Alfredo Di Stefano in the early 1950s. A haul of six league titles between 1959 and 1969 made these halcyon days for La U and their crop of largely home-grown players.
The Blue of Santiago
Sanchez also showcased his love affair with goals and big-game clout in signature style for his country. He made his bow against Brazil at the Maracana, aged just 19, and went on to chalk up 24 goals and 84 caps for La Roja over the course of 13 years. He featured in two World Cups, shining particularly brightly at Chile 1962, when he scored four goals to share the Golden Boot with Vava, Drazen Jerkovic, Garrincha, Florian Albert and Valentin Ivanov.
Sanchez went into that tournament on home soil on the back of another championship-winning campaign with La U, in which he had contributed 20 goals. He carried this form into Chile's World Cup opener, producing two smart finishes in a 3-1 comeback victory over Switzerland. The next match, against Italy, offered the chance to qualify for the quarter-finals, and it was a grudge game to boot. The reason: weeks earlier, an Italian newspaper had published a report describing the host country as a hotbed of prostitution, illiteracy and squalor.
The Chilean national team took umbrage and sought payback, with Sanchez on the front line. On the stroke of half-time in an encounter that was littered with stoppages, the left winger was kicked while on the ground by Mario David and responded by felling the Italian with a powerful punch.
As the son of a South American featherweight champ, Sanchez was never not going to retaliate. In the words of Sergio Navarro, the La Roja captain at that competition, "When Leonel hit someone, it was a smashed face and KO for the opponent." As it was, two Azzurri players were sent off in the Battle of Santiago, as the stormy showdown would become known, with Chile running out 2-0 winners and booking their ticket to the next round.
Chile lost 2-0 to West Germany in their final group match and were drawn against the former Soviet Union, the reigning European champions, in the quarter-finals. Early on, the referee waved away a penalty appeal for the hosts and instead signalled for a free-kick just outside the area, in a position that seemed made for Jorge Toro, a right-footer. But Sanchez had other ideas: "Leave it for me. I've got a hunch something's going to happen."
Sanchez's gut feeling proved well-founded. His rasping drive around the wall surprised legendary goalkeeper Yashin – who had been expecting a cross and barely moved – at his near post. "Divine justice!" yelled journalist Julio Martinez in his radio commentary, a phrase that would go down in folklore.
"They didn't know that Chile had a certain Leonel Sanchez who could strike the ball so well," the goalscorer himself would later quip. The hosts ended up upsetting USSR 2-1 and advancing to the semi-finals, where their dream run was halted by Vava and Garrincha's Brazil, who triumphed 4-2 in a game in which Sanchez netted his fourth and final goal of the tournament by converting from the penalty spot. Three days later, Chile bounced back to beat Yugoslavia 1-0 and clinch a historic third-place finish.
Lionhearted Leonel continued to fly the flag for his country in subsequent years, including travelling to England 1966, of which he has less than fond memories due to an early exit. Meanwhile, he kept winning things and dazzling with his beloved Universidad de Chile until he was inexplicably frozen out by the higher-ups. He duly signed for arch-rivals Colo-Colo and led them to league glory in 1970. Palestino and Ferroviarios enjoyed his last hurrahs before he hung up his boots in 1973.
Sanchez could have been a supreme southpaw, but luckily for us, he chose to apply his infinite talent, indomitable spirit and heavenly left foot to football, in which he was a knockout.