How Iván Zamorano and Marcelo Salas became Chile’s immortal striking duo

How Iván Zamorano and Marcelo Salas became Chile’s immortal striking duo

After coming together for the first time in 1994, Iván Zamorano and Marcelo Salas would leave a footprint on world football that would cement their legacy as one of the international game’s greatest strike duos, and Chile’s two finest strikers.

Though few at the time knew, they were perhaps the final generation, the last breed, of the powerful, unrelenting centre-forward succeeding at the very highest level. Despite a number of powerful number 9s since, few have managed to maintain the consistency of the Chilean duo, let alone thrive in the stats-based world of modern hitmen.

Their journey to Europe, though convergent at the highest level, couldn’t have been more different. In a nostalgic world where it seems impossible to have Zamorano without Salas and Salas without Zamorano, their early years, in particular Zamorano’s, gave few glimpses into what would become one of the great strikeforces in South American history.

Iván Zamorano, born in 1967, was the first to make his way in the game. Raised in a working-class family that struggled to make ends meet in the capital Santiago, his early years saw him move north with his family to the Atacama – after his father landed a job working in a mine – and spend hours playing football on the dusty local streets. His dream, one that would come true at the very end of his career, was to represent his beloved Colo Colo.

Zamorano’s upbringing was tough, as Bam Bam later recalled in an interview with Marca: “We struggled financially. I would help my family by doing odd jobs – cleaning cars, windows, whatever would pay me. We would use that money to buy food. I just wanted to play football, nothing else mattered. I would play for as long as I could in the park and on the streets with my friends. We were good too – our neighbourhood had so many boys my own age and we would compete against others around. My father would come looking for me when it was dark as the area was not always the safest. But we were happy. We had a happy childhood and my family encouraged me to play football. They knew I had talent.”

At the age of eight, Zamorano was invited to play in an under-10 game for a local club. It was recreational football, but his early growth spurt and fiery attitude encouraged local coach Iván Sánchez – who spent much of time sourcing talent for clubs in the Atacama region – to give him his chance.

Seven-hundred kilometres away in Temuco, a rugged, historic town that gained legend as the home of two former Nobel poets, Gabriela Mistral and Pablo Neruda, a baby by the name of José Marcelo Salas Melinao joined Zamorano in this unforgiving, politically unstable and economically struggling nation.

Salas’s upbringing was wholly different from that of his future strike partner. His family were relatively comfortable and his father spent much of his free time working with Salas on his heading and finishing. A local coach, Salas’ father was also the first to encourage the youngster to adopt a Machismo attitude – the Latin American mentality of masculinity – something that was evident throughout the hitman’s prolific career.

Despite their differing worlds, ages and backgrounds, Salas and Zamorano had one trait in common from an early age: their ability to graft and fight for success. These very traits would later come together at France 98 as an underwhelming Chile side struggled to make the knockout rounds but rode on the performances of their talismanic strikers.

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Zamorano’s first break at the highest level would come at El Salvador-based Cobresal. The club was situated on the foothills of the Andes, in one of the highest stadiums in the Chilean top flight. A perennial nearly-ran, it would take Zamorano just four years to guide his team, alongside the great domestic striker Rubén Martínez, to the Copa Chile title. Their remarkable victory against all the odds was delivered on the back of Zamorano’s ascent to become the best striker on the domestic scene. It also remains Cobresal’s only Copa title.

Unsurprisingly, Zamorano was selected for national team duty soon after. Having been an outcast in the national youth team set-ups, here was a player who had exploded onto the Chilean football scene in a flash. His sub-standard first two years at Cobresal saw him loaned out to third tier Cobreandino – sandwiched between elongated stints on the bench – but he quickly rose to become an intelligent, rounded finisher.

The key to Zamorano’s development was his shifting from being the flick-on target man with a salmon-like leap to utilising his considerable technical ability. The youngster demonstrated all the confidence and firepower that would later see him nicknamed ‘Iván el Terrible’.

By 20, Zamorano was a full international. Bagging a goal against Peru on his debut confirmed that La Roja had unearthed a raw diamond. It was fitting that Zamorano was raised in the Atacama region, a haven for diamond and gold hunters. This was perhaps the land’s greatest gift.

Just two goals, however, in his first 12 appearances – spread over four years – didn’t suggest that Zamorano would finish his career with 34 in 69 games. Once again, the youngster had to return to the drawing board and find a solution to take his game to the next level once again. That solution came in the unlikely form of St. Gallen, a club in the Swiss top flight.

While Zamorano would leave the confines of life in northern Chile, further south Marcelo Salas was breaking records in the Deportes Temuco academy. His transition from amateur to professional was far smoother – his talent much more obvious.

Salas was also a powerful striker, capable of using his body to manipulate his opponents and his head to finish from just about anywhere in the box. Crucially, however, he also had a turn of pace that he rarely received credit for. Salas was no slouch at 1.73m tall; he moved well across the ground, particularly in his early years, and could finish off either foot. Often all it took for Salas to score was a chancing cross or a loose ball in the box.

After his father took him for trials at Santiago de Chile (now Universidad), Salas was snapped up by the biggest club in the land and rewarded with a place in the first team squad’s training sessions. Though he played for one season with the youth side, he was quickly inducted into the first team and encouraged to use his strength and power to work his way into the side on a regular basis.

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It was to be one of the most productive spells in his career. Three years at Universidad between 1993 and 1996 saw the striker bag 76 goals in 126 appearances. It said so much about Salas’s attitude that, even as a 19-year-old, he was able to slot into the most competitive side in Chilean football and cement his place as the talisman.

His goals brought two titles to the capital, and his performances in the 1996 edition of the Copa Libertadores earned him a lucrative move to Argentine giants River Plate. There was no stopping Marcelo Salas – he was destined for greatness from the very beginning.

As Zamorano looked up at the Abbey of Saint Gall and around him at the lush rolling hills of St. Gallen, he must’ve felt a world away from the dry, bright, dusty world of El Salvador. It was a gamble moving to St. Gallen – initially on loan from Bologna after the Italian’s discarded him soon after his acquisition – a club that had never hosted a South American player, but it instantly paid off. Zamorano spent two years in Switzerland between 1988 and 1990, scoring 34 goals in 56 games and establishing himself as the best foreigner in the Swiss top flight.

His acclimatisation to the European game shouldn’t have surprised anyone. After all, the Chilean was a striker confident in using his strength, his head and his technique. He combined all the best traits of the powerful European game with the finesse and intelligence of South American strikers of the time. He was perfectly placed to play with freedom and without pressure. By all accounts, he was the complete centre-forward.

Crucially for Zamorano, the move to St. Gallen also enabled him to help drive his family out of financial hardship. “I wanted to buy my family a house, a nice place where they could live together and where I could visit them. It was the first time I had money in my pocket to spend on such things, and the wages in Europe were so much better than in Chile at the time. “I first bought myself a car to drive to training in, and then spent most of my first few months’ wages on a house for my family.”

It was inevitable that Zamorano would soon grow too big for Swiss football. And so it was, in 1990, four years before Salas would first step onto the pitch as a professional footballer, that Zamorano made the highly coveted move to Sevilla. With the lure of a similar lifestyle to Chile – and a better standard of football – enough to convince Zamorano that Seville was the place for him, the striker settled quickly and continued his free-scoring form from Switzerland.

Zamorano elevated himself to become one of LaLiga’s brightest stars with 23 goals in 63 games for Los Rojiblancos. In a division that boasted the goalscoring exploits of Hugo Sánchez, Emilio Butragueño, John Aldrige, Manolo and Hristo Stoichkov, Zamorano settled to become a fearsome prospect for defenders across Spain.

For a period, Zamorano and Davor Šuker, his strike partner at Sevilla, formed one of the most feared duos in European football. Indeed, Zamorano has often stated that Šuker is the only striker behind Salas in the greatest team of players he has played with.

With similar styles, Šuker and Zamorano struck up an immediate understanding of who would show deep and who would move stay on the last line. Šuker, blessed with grace and composure, was the perfect foil for the Chilean. His first touch passes and ability to cleverly flick the ball on enabled Zamorano to score freely in Spain. There’s no question that Bam Bam was best deployed in a partnership.

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With his star shining, it was little surprise that Real Madrid moved for the Chilean in the summer of 1992. Under Jorge Valdano, Zamorano shone. In an interview with FourFourTwo magazine, the former Los Blancos star had this to say about his legendary boss: “I had many great coaches in my career, but Valdano was definitely the best. I grew as a player so much with him. He was an honest person and when I started to score, he trusted in me.”

That was always the key for Zamorano – finding a manager who believed in his talent. Like most strikers of his ilk, he flitted in and out of games, even in and out of scoring periods. He didn’t register many assists and was reliant on those around him providing the ammunition. He needed trust from the manager during the tough times. To his credit, Valdano was always patient with Zamorano. Perhaps being a similar type of striker helped Valdano empathise during his short-lived goal droughts.

During his greatest spell in football, Zamorano bagged an astonishing 101 goals in 173 games for the Bernabéu giants. His strike rate was amongst the best in Real’s history at the time, and he helped bring three trophies to the Spanish capital during a lacklustre period for the club.

The 1994/95 season saw Zamorano reach his zenith. Winning the Pichichi with 27 goals and forming the league’s most effective strikeforce alongside Michael Laudrup, he helped Madrid to the title – with a famous hat-trick against Barcelona along the way. His strength, consistency and fearless nature was too good for most defenders in LaLiga. Zamorano was now considered one of the best strikers in the world.

Real Madrid’s official website has this to say of their former star: “Tenacity and goals personified. In four seasons with Real Madrid, Zamorano scored 100 goals, leaving behind pleasant memories for the fans. Nicknamed Bam Bam, he was fundamental in the conquest of the 1994/95 LaLiga title, where he was the league’s leading scorer (28 goals).

“A forward with good goalscoring sense, his greatest virtue was his header on goal. Zamorano was not especially tall (1.79), but his powerful legs allowed him to stay in the air much longer than defenders. During his time in Spain he would score with his headers some of the most spectacular goals ever seen.”

By the summer of 1996, with Real intent on building their team around a young Raúl, Zamorano left for pastures new. His destination was Internazionale – and joining him in Serie A two years later would be another Chilean striker, Marcelo Salas. Finally, the king would be united with the prince in one league.

Zamorano’s first season at the Giuseppe Meazza saw him join the likes of Youri Djorkaeff and Paul Ince under the guidance of Roy Hodgson. Despite only registering seven goals for the club in Serie A, Zamorano’s contribution was more about freeing space for Djorkaeff to net his 14 and Maurizio Ganz his 11.

Helping the Nerazzurri to a third-place finish in Serie A, their best since the early-90s and the heady days of Lothar Matthäus and Andreas Brehme, Zamorano was influential and instantly won over the fans, donning his preferred number 9 shirt in the process.

It was in Europe that Inter really shone that year. Reaching the UEFA Cup final, where they would face Schalke, the club had once again set itself up as a major player in calcio. Despite losing to the Germans, their performances that season – often on the back of Zamorano’s hard work and selfless play – enabled the club to lure Brazilian superstar Ronaldo.

The next season, alongside a host of new signings including Diego Simeone, Álvaro Recoba and Zé Elias, Inter went a step further and lifted the UEFA Cup, also finishing as runners-up in the Scudetto. Ronaldo was the standout performer, netting 25 goals in the league and a further six in Europe to cement his place as the world’s best player. For Zamorano, it was a stop-start season with injuries taking their toll and Ronaldo’s form making it almost impossible to start regularly.

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At the start of the 1998/99 season, in one of the more bizarre incidents in football history, with Roberto Baggio joining the Nerazzurri and taking the number 10 shirt, and Ronaldo being allocated the number 9, Zamorano was forced to find an alternative to keep his preferred number. Superstitious from an early age, the Chilean opted to have 1+8 on his back. Though the plus sign was minuscule, it was enough to keep Zamorano on board.

And Inter were glad they did. He finished as the club’s second top scorer in Serie A behind Ronaldo but found playing time more frequent as he shook off his injury troubles and found a place alongside the Brazilian. Four managers came and went that year – and the results showed. A lacklustre eighth in Serie A was a disappointing return in a season that promised so much.

A final season in northern Italy awaited the Chilean, whose goalscoring record was under scrutiny following the world-record signing of Christian Vieri. Under Marcello Lippi, with Ronaldo injured for the entire season, Inter managed to claw their way to fourth in the league, thanks in part to Vieri’s 14 goals, Recoba’s 10 and Zamorano’s seven.

Zamorano was underrated and underappreciated during his time in black and blue, his selfless work for the Milanese club creating a number of opportunities for his fellow stars. His work off the ball also afforded the likes of Recoba and Baggio ample time and space to operate in and less of a responsibility to track back. In contrast to his Real Madrid days when goalscoring was his number one priority, in the regimented style of Italian football, Zamorano had to adapt. It showed both his team-centric attitude and ability to fulfil a number of roles.

Two years into Zamorano’s Italian adventure, compatriot Marcelo Salas joined him, heading to Lazio for $18m. As a result of his exploits for River Plate and with the national team at France 98 – where he won the Bronze Shoe – Salas was regarded as one of the best strikers outside Europe. It was alongside Zamorano for Chile that Salas shone brightest. The former La U starlet scored 10 goals for La Roja in 1998, four of them coming in the World Cup alongside his friend and mentor, Zamorano. Their partnership was widely regarded as one of the most devastating at international level.

Perhaps Salas’s finest moment that year came against England at Wembley when the underdogs of South America stunned their European counterparts in a show of counter-attacking, aggressive, intelligent football. Salas was at the heart of everything, his pace, power and movement too good for Sol Campbell and Tony Adams. In his post-match interview, Adams said: “Salas was top class. [He] Has all the attributes to succeed at a big club. I would say he’s probably one of the best strikers I’ve played against for England.”

Zamorano, again adopting his role as a foil for his younger, more energetic partner, was equally effective in 1998. He provided two assists during the World Cup and would remain central so Salas could find space within the inside channels to torment the opposition.

On the back of scoring nine goals in five appearances in 1997, Zamorano had a quieter ’98, registering two in eight as he saw his countrymen crash out of the World Cup in the round of 16, losing 4-1 to eventual finalists Brazil. Zamorano was to live in the shadow of his Inter teammate and friend Ronaldo that day.

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Their partnership was to continue until 2001, when Zamorano marked the end of his international journey in a friendly against France. It was a testament to his enduring quality that he had scored 34 times in 69 games – a world-class return for a player whose career started quietly but burst into life following his low-profile move to Europe.

For Salas, his international career would last another six years, and his time in Italy would make him the most successful Chilean to play in Europe. Eight major trophies across a six-year spell at Lazio and Juventus – where injuries hampered much of his time in Turin – would cement his legacy as one of Chile’s all-time greats.

Despite his troubles in Turin, only making 18 appearances in three years, his reputation was never affected. His outstanding start to European life at Lazio, his records and trophies at River, and his performances on the grandest stage for Chile were enough to convince fans that Salas would return from his injury nightmare just as good.

And he did. Following two successful loans spells at River between 2003 and 2005 – where he is widely considered as one of the club’s greatest imports – Salas opted to swing full circle and return to his beloved Universidad. Three years in the Chilean capital yielded a healthy 37 goals in 82 games as Salas wound down the years with some of his most influential performances.

His goal record of one in every 1.8 is comparable to most other greats. That Zamorano, who would wind down his career with an outstanding spell at Club América in Mexico, had an almost identical record suggests how lucky Chile were to have such gifted strikers at their disposal at the same time.

Perhaps greater than any achievement on the field, Zamorano and Salas inspired a new generation to take Chile to the Copa América title in 2015. Many of La Roja’s current stars have gone on record to say that the two strikers were their idols growing up. That Bam Bam and El Matador were able to wrestle back a seemingly terminal decline in the Chilean game stands as one of their finest achievements.

Looking back, it’s easy to forget that in Zamorano we have one of Real Madrid’s greatest goalscorers. In Salas, we have one of River Plate’s greatest strikers. They moved to Europe with their eyes open, determined to become the best they could be. Through selfless football, hard work, raw power and a desire to score goals, they became one of the greatest strike duos in international football.

And in doing so, represented the final chapter in the story of two powerful strikers using their strength, movement and aerial prowess to manipulate results for their team and working as a pair. With Zamorano or Salas in your side, anything was possible. It just took a chancing cross.

By Omar Saleem @omar_saleem

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