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Born: Saturday 25 April 1936, Santiago, Chile
Chile's most capped player and for many years record goalscorer, left winger Leonel Sánchez is undoubtedly one of his country's greatest ever footballers. Spending most of his club career with Universidad de Chile, he was one of the stars of Chile's run to the semi-finals of the World Cup on home soil in 1962 where despite having a fine tournament, he also found himself embroiled in the famous brawl in the match against Italy.
Sánchez, the son of a South American boxing champion, was born in Santago on 25 April 1936. His abilities as a football quickly attracted the attention of Universidad de Chile. He joined their youth system at the age of 11 and went on to spend more than 20 years with the club. Although not the biggest of players, Sánchez possessed a wonderful left-footed shot and even as a teenager had a reputation for intelligent play more characteristic of a veteran than a youngster. Throughout his career he became known as both a regular scorer and creator of goals.
Sánchez made his first team debut for Universidad in September 1953, at the age of 17. His appearances were somewhat irregular until the 1955 season, but having become a regular first choice he helped the club finish that season in third place in the league and also earned a first international call-up for the O'Higgins Cup matches against Brazil. Still just a teenager, his performances were good enough to earn a place in the squad for the South American Championship in Uruguay at the beginning of 1956.
In that tournament he scored his first international goal in Chile's stunning 4-1 win over Brazil in their opening match, before adding a late winner in a 4-3 victory over Peru as Chile finished in third place. The team were unable to push on from that promising performance and had a poor tournament a year later, although Sánchez was gradually helping to turn Universidad into contenders at domestic level. They finished second in the league in 1957 and fifth a year later, but were only three points behind champions Santiago Wanderers.
After another impressive South American Championship in which he scored two goals, the breakthrough for Sánchez and Universidad came in the 1959 season. Sánchez was ever present throughout the league campaign, scoring 22 goals in 26 games to help his team finish tied with Colo-Colo at the top of the table. In a play-off match for the title, Universidad triumphed 2-1 to claim their first championship in 19 years.
Over the next couple of years, Chilean football was focused on their hosting of the 1962 World Cup. With no qualification matches, they faced a number of friendlies against leading European sides and with Sánchez at the peak of his form, gained several impressive results. He scored twice in a 3-1 victory over West Germany in the spring of 1961, before adding two more in a 5-1 thrashing of Hungary later in the year. Although they had never previously got through the group stage of the World Cup, Chile went into the finals full of confidence that they could have a good tournament.
In the opening match, Sánchez scored twice as Chile came from behind to beat Switzerland 3-1. Unfortunately, the second game against Italy was one of the World Cup's low points as the match degenerated into brutal violence. Sánchez responded to a bad foul by throwing a punch at Italian defender Mario David, but escaped punishment. When David kicked him in the head moments later, it was the Italian who was dismissed. Amid the chaos, Chile won the match to reach the last eight with a game to spare, rendering their defeat to West Germany largely irrelevant.
In the quarter-finals, Chile faced the Soviet Union and it was Sánchez who opened the scoring with an early free-kick. Although the Soviets equalised, Chile quickly retook control and finished 2-1 winners, setting up a mouthwatering semi-final against holders Brazil. Brazil led 2-1 at half-time and when they scored again soon after the restart, appeared home and dry. Chile were not giving up however, and Sánchez got his fourth goal of the finals from the penalty spot to revive their hopes. A late Váva goal finally killed off the hosts, although they recovered to beat Yugoslavia 1-0 and finish third.
Sánchez was named as the tournament's third best player and selected in the FIFA all-star team, as well as finishing in an unprecedented six-way tie for the Golden Boot with four goals. That World Cup proved to be the catalyst for an incredible run of domestic success throughout the 1960s. Sánchez won another league title with Universidad later that year, after a play-off against Universidad Católica. He attracted the attention of many top European clubs, most notably AC Milan, but took the decision to remain in Chile after the club reduced the amount of money they were offering.
Two more titles followed in 1964 and 1965, and in the second of those seasons Sánchez also played a pivotal role in Chile's qualification for the World Cup in England. Having to beat Ecuador in their final group game to keep their hopes alive, Sánchez gave Chile an early lead from the penalty spot as they recorded a 3-1 victory to force a play-off against the same opponents. In that match in Lima, he was again on target early on as Chile won 2-1 to reach the finals in England. However, they were no longer the force they had been on home soil four years earlier. Chile finished bottom of their group with just one point, from a draw with North Korea.
Sánchez's international career came to an end two years later, after 84 caps which brought 23 goals. Both figures were records at the time, his goalscoring total finally being overtaken by Carlos Caszely in the mid-1980s but his appearance record remaining intact to this day. His glorious run with Universidad continued until the end of the decade, with another title being won in 1967 and after a near miss the following year, his sixth with the club coming in 1969. Following a contract dispute, he finally left the club at the end of the 1969 season, after more than 16 years in the first team and over 400 senior appearances.
Sánchez moved on to Colo-Colo, where he won yet another league title in the 1970 season after a play-off win over Unión Española. That proved to be the end of his top flight career, as he spent the remainder of his playing days in the Second Division, firstly with Palestino and finally with Ferroviarios where he retired in 1973, aged 37. After ending his playing career, Sánchez later returned to Universidad where he worked as an assistant coach and for two brief spells, as head coach. He has also coached youngsters at football schools in Santiago.
References (all accessed 29 October 2012):
- Published on Monday, 29 October 2012 23:58