Illustration by Federico Manasse
Very few players have united a whole country quite like Hugo Sánchez, but then there have been few players like the Real Madrid legend. When Mexico’s hottest property moved to Spain in 1981, he was virtually an unknown quantity in his new adopted home. Underlying attitudes of superiority emanating from the Spanish public hampered his confidence at first, but a decade later and those voices were nowhere to be heard.
Before the madness of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi’s ridiculous scoring rates, Sánchez set the bar. In just seven years at the Bernabéu he became the third highest scorer in the club’s history, winning the Pichichi award for La Liga’s top goalscorer an impressive five times, and setting the record for goals scored in a season with 38 in 1989/90.
Although he is understandably remembered principally for his time in white, his arrival in Madrid was with cross-town rivals Atlético, and his initial impact was underwhelming. Struggling for game time and confidence, he still managed to record 12 goals, and in the following decade only fell below a goal every other game in one full season before returning to his homeland.
Attitudes towards Mexican players were different to now – often taunted for being an outsider, it was assumed in the early stages of his Spanish adventure that he wouldn’t have the perseverance to see it through, but he fought preconceptions as much through his panache as his consistency. His predilection for spectacular “chilenas” (overhead kicks) endeared him to the Madrileño audience, a streak in his style of play that stemmed not from the thirst for acceptance or adulation, but from a combination of his incredible natural instinct and a desire to entertain.
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His athletic flamboyance came from a family steeped in sport. His father was a semi-professional footballer who a young Hugo would idolise as Sánchez Sr practiced his tricks and chilenas, while his sister was an Olympic gymnast who represented Mexico at the Montreal games in 1976. ‘Hugol’, as he was dubbed by Spanish fans, would perform his own acrobatic somersault celebration after each goal he scored, a testament to his own agility and low centre of gravity.
Back home, whole families and communities would crowd around TV sets just to catch their idol setting alight the distant world of La Liga, regardless of their disposition. The social phenomenon was interwoven with a bitter irony, however; in the 11 years he played in Spain, he only made seven appearances for his country, four of which were during the home World Cup in 1986.
The unimaginable scale of the pressure heaped upon his shoulders as the star turn of the hosts would have crushed lesser men at that tournament, but not Sánchez. Some may have questioned his motivation to represent his country now he had reached the promised land of European club football, while others were simply proud to see one their own flying the Mexican flag abroad. This still didn’t prevent him from scoring 29 goals in 58 caps, but added to the fascination with his overseas odyssey.
As a national symbol, he showed the world that Mexico was a country of outrageous talent that deserved respect. His career paved the way for his countrymen to have the conviction of character to make a career for themselves across the Atlantic, and although his international career was truncated, he still showed the endless quality that brought goals wherever he went.
Leo Beenhakker, his coach at Real Madrid, famously praised the exuberant quality of Sánchez’s goalscoring ability. “When a player scores a goal like that [referring to his spectacular effort against Logroñés in 1985], play should be suspended and a glass of champagne offered to the 80,000 fans that witnessed it.” The pair clashed towards the end of his time at Real over the Mexican’s refusal to be on the bench for a UEFA Cup tie against Torino, but the chimerical nature of the greatest Mexican of all still couldn’t detract from his legend