Chilean “Street Fighter” Alexis Sanchez Shines as Arsenal’s Star

A dramatic win for London’s Arsenal thanks to not one, but two goals by Chilean player Alexis Sanchez cements his position as the club’s crown jewel.

Since joining Arsenal from Barcelona in July last year, Sanchez has come into his own, scoring 25 goals in 50 club appearances. Several times he appeared to win the game almost on his own. In the lead up to the FA Cup final 4-0 win against Aston Villa, he scored both goals in Arsenal’s 2-1 semifinal win against Reading, rescuing the game from a penalty shoot out in the 15th minute of extra time. He also scored two out of the three goals in Arsenal’s 3-0 Premier league destruction of Stoke in January.

This season has extended and expanded on the star quality Sanchez began showing during 2013-2014, when he scored 19 in 43 club appearances for Spanish club Barca, and scored the two goals in Chile’s 2-0 crushing of England in the run up to the World Cup.  At Barca he was one of the leading lights, now he is the star.

Before Sanchez signed with Arsenal, the Gunners coach Arsene Wenger was courting Uruguay’s Luis Suarez. Wenger, a Frenchman enamored with the grit and grace of Latin American players, famously bid £40 million plus one pound for Suarez because of a clause in his then-contract with Liverpool. Suarez ultimately went to Barcelona, but cost so much that Barca had to sell Sanchez to Arsenal for £30 million as a result.

Wenger, who has managed Arsenal since 1996, sees Latin Americans as the world’s last “street fighters,” soccer professionals who learned to love the game outside of schools and stadiums. Maradona, for example, was a player cut from this kind of cloth.

Arsene Wenger and Alexis Sánchez
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In South America, or at least Wenger’s romanticized vision of the continent, sport-obsessed 10 year olds are booted out onto the streets while their parents work because they can’t afford school or babysitters.  There they have to prove themselves in improvised football games against tough teenagers twice their size on the rough ground at the edge of a favela or open cast mine.

Sanchez’s hometown, Tocopilla in the Antofagasta province, does seem like a place that would spawn soccer toughness. The port town in Chile’s arid northwest came into being to serve the saltpetre-exporting industry shortly after being captured from Bolivia in the 1870s War of the Pacific, during which Chile took on Bolivia and Peru and won territory from both. For 150 years, the place has mostly existed to send resources elsewhere: potassium overseas for most of its history, and energy to the rest of Chile from a vastly polluting, coal-fired power plant from 1915 onwards.

Tocopilla city.
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Antofagasta is not Chile’s poorest region, nor is Chile poor by the standards of its peer nations. But half of the region’s workers take home $731 a month or less, according to a study by Chilean think tank Fundación Sol.

Those rough and humble beginnings make the price tag paid for Sanchez that much more dramatic.

UK tabloid newspaper The Express, no stranger to covering outlandish soccer wages, called his £150,000 ($231,000) per week salary “eye-watering” in an article covering his planned purchase of a palatial £3.5 million mansion. Arsenal fans are hoping the player’s good fortune continues to reflect well on the team, something far from guaranteed for pricey Latin American hires in recent years.

Sanchez was not enough to produce an Arsenal win against Chelsea on April 26, but fighting the Blues to a standstill counts as a victory by some standards. Chelsea battered Arsenal 6-0 in March last year. That match gave Chelsea 21 shots at goal, compared with just 11 for Arsenal, although the south London team only had a 53% to 47% lead on ball possession. For their last 10 matches, Arsenal lost five, drew three, and won just two.

Sanchez’s success contrasts strongly with other high-profile South American hires, like Argentina’s Angel Di Maria. Manchester United set a league record with his £59.7 million transfer fee, but Di Maria has scored just three goals in 19 club appearances. Arsenal may also be happy to have missed out on Suarez, who became famous for racist slurs and biting. Liverpool fans may be pleased that their club turned a profit when he was sold on, but are probably relieved to shed the nasty headlines he generates.

British football crowds are notoriously fickle, but for the moment Sanchez is riding high. His manager believes in his street-fighting magic. The team’s fans have voted him player of the month three times in a row—more than any other player this season—and he scored four more goals than any player on the team. It would take a sustained effort to mess things up. He is no Maradona but has a steady head on his shoulders.