Illustration by Federico Manasse
When Alexis Sanchez gave Chile an early lead against Germany in a 2017 Confederations Cup group stage encounter, he brought an end to a 10-year record. It was the Arsenal forward’s 38th international goal to move him clear atop the nation’s international goalscoring charts of El Matador: Marcelo Salas.
Sánchez is widely recognised as not only as one of the nation’s finest ever players, but also one of the best in the current crop of South American stars. However, his attacking influence on the Chileans must be placed in the context of this achievement occurring having earned 52 caps more for La Roja than the previous holder.
The influence of Salas was not just confined to a sparkling international career – where alongside Iván Zamorano he forged one of the most iconic strike partnerships in South American history – but also in bringing league titles to each of the four clubs he represented throughout his career. This was a player who built his career not only on talent and hard work but also on great tenacity and an unquenchable desire for success.
Salas began his career at Universidad de Chile where he racked up 76 goals despite completing only two full seasons for the club, in which they lifted back-to-back league titles. The 21-year-old was making waves in South American football and a move seemed inevitable. Sounded out by Argentine giants Boca Juniors, the striker underwent a late change of heart to instead sign for bitter rivals River Plate.
Criticism was inevitable and before the Chilean had even kicked a ball in Argentina, Boca legend Diego Maradona was among the most vocal. None of this appeared to distract Salas, who continued his devastating goalscoring form to kick-start one of the most dominant periods of the River’s history.
Averaging more than a goal every other game (26 in 51) he earned the nickname ‘El Shileno Salas’ for helping the club to four trophies; the Torneo de Apertura in 1996 followed by the Clausura, the Apertura and the Supercopa Sudamericana the following year.
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It was not just at club level where Salas was excelling but with his native Chile, who after years in the international wilderness were finally becoming a force once again. The striker netted on his senior debut as a 19-year-old against Argentina, and from that moment onwards he was the first name on the teamsheet, more often than not alongside his partner in crime, Zamorano.
The two formed a devastating partnership which allowed Salas to not only replicate his club form, but better it. His first 43 caps saw him strike 30 times – a rate particularly impressive in the context of Chile’s opponents during that streak being of a high international calibre. Eleven of those goals helped propel Chile to the 1998 World Cup, while he struck both times in a famous warm-up win at Wembley over England before netting a further four at the tournament itself.
A move to a European giant duly arrived in the aftermath of the tournament, when Sven-Göran Eriksson’s Lazio swooped for his signature. A sparkling first season saw him continue his streak as one of the world’s finest goalscorers – 23 in 43 appearances, winning the Supercoppa Italiana and Cup Winners’ Cup along the way. The following campaign saw Salas score the only goal as Eriksson’s team beat Manchester United in the European Super Cup before going on to form part of the Rome club’s famous Scudetto and Coppa Italia double-winning side, thus securing cult status at yet another club.
He was then transferred to Juventus – money plus Darko Kovačević going in the opposite direction – but his luck was to run out and injuries were to strike. Salas was plagued by them, unable to shake off niggles and struggling to gain full fitness. Mustering a mere 26 appearances across his two seasons with the Bianconeri, he could at least lay claim to forming part of two title-winning sides.
Salas returned to River on a loan spell and despite ongoing fitness issues, managed 17 goals across two campaigns and helped launch them to the Copa Libertadores semi-finals – a run which included a throwback hat-trick from the Chilean – before losing to eventual champions São Paulo.
Still turning out sporadically for the national team, Salas returned to boyhood side Universidad in 2005 despite considering early retirement. He managed three more years of playing – and scoring 39 goals in total – before hanging up his boots aged 33, drawing a close to a truly illustrious, glittering and trophy-laden career