We are living in an era filled with freakishly good goalscorers. Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have defied the odds for over a decade now, posting ridiculous tallies come the end of every season and shattering records in Spain and the rest of Europe. Outside of those two, Mohamed Salah just broke the Premier League record for most goals in a season, Harry Kane seems well on his way to taking the all-time top Premier League goalscorer crown away from Alan Shearer. Elsewhere, Gonzalo Higuain recently matched the single season record for most goals in a Serie A season and Edinson Cavani became PSG’s all-time top goalscorer, just two years after Zlatan Ibrahimovic broke the same record.
In the history of this sport in Europe, one would find it hard to find, not only a player who scored like the current era of goal scorers, but also did it as consistently as this current pantheon has. Alfredo Di Stefano, Eusebio and Ferenc Puskas would all be names we’d consider representing past generations in this goal scoring match up, however, there is another less spoke about name that encapsulates many of the great qualities of the modern goalscorer and, in contrast to the aforementioned players, plied his goalscoring trade a mere three decades ago.
Hugo Sanchez arrived in Spain an unknown quality and widely considered a gamble by neutrals and rival fans alike. In a mere seven season period, he lit up the Spanish top flight, quickly setting himself apart from any forward in the country. When he left Spain for the final time in 1994, he’d won five league titles, was a five-time Picchi winner, the highest scoring foreigner in La Liga history and the league’s second highest goalscorer, not to mention Real Madrid’s fifth highest scorer of all time. Despite all these remarkable achievements in such a short amount of time, Sanchez’s name isn’t known outside of those who watched him play and in an era of such exceptional goal scorers, Sanchez’s achievement seem quite ordinary when they were anything but at the time.
Despite his clear talent, Sanchez was 15 when he decided that he wanted to become a footballer. By pleading with his brother, Horacio, Hugo was allowed to train with his brother’s semiprofessional outfit where he quickly gained a name for himself. Sanchez styled his game on his father’s, another semi pro footballer who awed the crowds with his daring finishes. The young Sanchez quickly set about emulating his father and his skills gained him the nickname Niño de Oro (Golden Boy). He earned a place with the Mexican national team at the 1976 Olympics and a move to Pumas UNAM quickly followed. While playing with Pumas, Sanchez also furthered his studies at UNAM budding university, studying Dentistry, but his performances on the pitch scuppered any chance the young Hugo had of being a dentist. The Mexican’s debut coincided with a golden era in UNAM history, during his five seasons at the club, he won two league titles, the CONCACAF Champions’ Cup and the Copa Interamericana, scoring 99 league goals in just 183 appearances.
He finally earned a move to Europe in 1982, with Atlético Madrid gambling on the 23-year old to replicate his form with UNAM in Spain. Sanchez struggled to make a mark in his first season, scoring just nine goals. His future was in serious doubt that summer, but the club decided to back their young forward and would not be disappointed. After an 8th place finish in his first season, Atleti never finished below fourth for the rest Sanchez’s tenure at the club. In his final season, the Mexican secured his first Picchici and helped the club to the Copa Del Rey, snapping an eight-year trophy drought.
After such impressive performances for the rojiblancos, it wasn’t long before the white side of Madrid came calling and they eventually lured Sanchez away in the summer of 1985. The 1980s hadn’t been kind for Real, they continued to struggle in Europe and watched their domestic dominance taken away from them by Real Sociedad, Athletic Bilbao and Barcelona. A wave of change was on the horizon at the Spanish capital, Ramon Mendoza was elected president in 1985 and went about modernising the club. He put Castilla’s promising Quinta Del Buirte to the fore and went about building around them with Sanchez the latest piece in the puzzle.
With the Mexican leading the line, Madrid’s young core went from promising to the finished deal. Los Blancos ended their long league title drought and retained their UEFA Cup from the previous season. Having waited five years for a league title, Los Blancos went about winning the following five up for grabs and Sanchez was very much at the heart of it. When the Mexican joined Madrid, no La Liga striker had scored more than 30 goals since Alfredo Di Stefano broke that mark in 1957, with anything just above the 20 mark usually enough to win the Pichichi and anything beyond 25 considered rare.
At Madrid, Sanchez never scored fewer than 22 goals in a League season. In 1987-88, just over 30 years after Di Stefano had last achieved it, Sanchez broke the 30-league goal mark. He finished that season with 34 goals sealing a fourth consecutive Pichichi and earning himself the nickname ‘Pentapichichi’ amongst the Bernabeu faithful. Sanchez goals weren’t merely tap ins either; inspired by a childhood watching his flamboyant father attempt the impossible, the young Sanchez often sought the spectacular and quickly became famed in Spain for his chilenas or bicycle kicks. In a league game against Logronos, Sanchez scored a chilena which the press called El Senor Gol, a label that underwhelmingly translates to great goal, something which doesn’t do the strike much justice. The finish was so spectacular, then manager Leo Bekkenhakker was moved to say that “When a player scores a goal like that, play should be suspended, and a glass of champagne offered to the 80,000 fans that witnessed it.”
Sadly, for Leo, he didn’t witness too many more Sanchez specials from the sidelines, as he was sacked that summer. In his place, Madrid hired a fire breathing Welshman, John Toshack. Toshack had made a name for himself with Real Sociedad, dragging a core of weary veterans to one last title triumph in the shape of the Copa Del Rey in 1987. Under Toshack, the Quinta took on, according to Sanchez, its best form. It’s of no surprise that the Mexican enjoyed life under Toshack, having spent the previous four seasons seen as one of the antithesis to the Quinta’s silkily possession football, Toshack favored a more aggressive and direct approach and Sanchez flourished in it.
Madrid won the league at a canter once more, becoming just the second team in league history to break the 100 goal mark with a record 107 goals scored. Sanchez scored 38, all from single touch finishes. The haul matched Telmo Zarra’s record of most goals in a single La Liga season and sealed the Mexican’s fifth Pichichi in Spain. The tally was also enough to see him win the European Golden Shoe as well, becoming the first ever La Liga forward to do so in the process.
It was as good as it got for Sanchez at Madrid, Toshack was sacked midway through the next season and the aging Quinta Del Buirte left Madrid for newer pastures. Sanchez left in 1992, his final two seasons at Los Blancos ruined by an Achilles injury that limited him to just eight games in his final season. He departed the Bernabeu having won ten major honors, scoring 207 goals for the club with a stunning 164 of those coming in La Liga.
The Mexican never recaptured his form after leaving the Spanish capital and after a brief journeyman end to his career, which saw him bounce between Mexico, Austria, Dallas and a return to Madrid with Rayo Vallencano, Sanchez retired in 1997. His last club game was in a tribute match at the Santiago Bernabeu against Paris Saint Germain. The Mexican scored a hatrick in a 4-1 win with his last goal coming quite fittingly from a scissor kick.
Looking back at Sanchez’s career, particularly with the context of his era, some of his achievements are stunning. He is finished his career as Madrid’s fifth all-time top goal scorer and still sits a highly sixth despite some of the great goalscorers that have played for Los Blancos since he left. He was La Liga second all-time goalscorer up until Messi and Ronaldo overtook him. In a time where breaking the 30-goal mark was unheard of in the Spanish top flight, Sanchez did it twice and was one away from reaching it again in 1987-88. Only five players scored 30 or more goals in La Liga since Sanchez last did it in 1989-90 and it took another two decades for someone to better it, Cristiano Ronaldo scoring 40 in 2011-12. At the time of his retirement, only three players apart from Sanchez had won five Pichichi trophies or more and only one, Alfredo Di Stefano, had won four in a row. Even Ronaldo was unable to match his Pichichi tally and although Messi looks set to join Telmo Zarra on six, he has yet to win more than two in a row.
It is quite clear from his achievements that Sanchez was among the finest strikers of his generation and perhaps of all time so the question remains as to why he isn’t discussed in this company more often. The main issues for Sanchez are the only holes in his CV, like the rest of the Quinta, Sanchez’s Madrid legacy was greatly tarnished by a lack of European success. The Mexican never seemed to find his feet in European competition like he did in Spain, scoring a measly 22 goals in Europe for Madrid. Sanchez legacy has also suffered from playing with the Quinta Del Buirte. Madrid’s homegrown golden boys lauded the attention of the media, so much so that Sanchez suggested a second Quinta called the Quinta de Los Machos, made up of Jose Antonio Camacho, Rafael Gordillo, Paco Buyo and himself, who came at terms with technical and aesthetically pleasing football of the quinta. Though Sanchez suggested the group as a joke, the narrative that five Madrid youngsters fired Los Blancos back to the top of the Spanish footballing ladder has become a popular notion and has undoubtedly hurt Sanchez’s legacy, no differently than it had hurt the legacy of other members of his Machos.
The other unavoidable black spot on Sanchez’s CV comes with his international side. Hugo was quite a prolific international throughout his early career, however, his performances dipped with El Tri after he earned a move to Europe. He made just seven appearances for Mexico in his 11 years in Spain, with four of those coming in the 1986 World Cup. After winning the Golden Cup in 1977, Mexico failed to kick on at World Cups with Sanchez playing a role in that failure, he scored just a single goal for his country at the World Cup, leading many fans to question his commitment to his country. He finished his international career in 1998 with 27 goals in just 58 caps.
As always with the greats, Sanchez wasn’t a flawless character and it seems that his flaws have dealt him a harsh hand in the history books, especially in the current climate where 30 goals a season is considered the benchmark of a world clas striker. However, it shouldn’t distract from the Mexican figures, which portray a forward ahead of his time. In both quantity and quality, Sanchez possessed every trait that we love about the modern goalscorer.
Kristofer McCormack is a freelance football writer with a passion for Spanish football. His work as features regularly on Fansided, These Football Times and Fansided’s Real Madrid blog, The Real Champs. Follow him on Twitter @K_mc06.
Fear and Loathing in La Liga by Sid Lowe