The Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football, or CONCACAF, has produced many talented footballers over the years, with some making a significant impact in the sport. Hugo Sánchez’s career was a different case altogether, as his footprint brought a worldwide effect and is almost impossible to parallel to any other.
Sánchez saw the game differently, and his incredible instincts in front of goal were at another level. With exceptional pace, non-stop energy on the pitch and an acrobatic flair in his movements, “Hugol” was a true force in LaLiga during the 1980s. His passion always seemed to guide him in the right direction, once stating that “whoever invented soccer should be worshipped as a God”.
His transfer to Europe came at a time when such moves were not as common as they are today, and Sánchez introduced his electric new style to Spain. His beginnings in Mexico influenced his legacy, including everything from goal celebrations to the insatiable drive to succeed.
Born in Mexico City, Sánchez’s family helped to provide a platform for his talents through their own athletic abilities. His father, Hector, was a professional footballer, most notably with Atlante. His sister, Herlinda, was a talented gymnast, and their lives would have a fascinating connection throughout Hugo’s career.
Hugo Sánchez would pursue gymnastics as a youngster as well, before football became his focus. It is an important element that would ultimately have a profound effect on his playing style, as one can see the influence in his movements. Poised, acrobatic and clever, Sánchez could put himself in unique positions and attack the ball in a very different way from those around him.
Both Sánchez and his sister would represent their country at the 1976 Summer Olympics in Canada. His trademark goal celebration, featuring a somersault and his hands pointing towards the sky, came about as a way to honour Herlinda. Still just a teenager, tremendous potential was evident for Sánchez, and that would manifest itself during a successful stint with his first professional club.
Sánchez signed with Pumas UNAM in 1976 when he was just 18, but brought a fantastic amount of experience at such a young age. He had not only appeared with El Tri at the Summer Olympics, but also played for Mexico at the 1975 Pan American Games. This allowed Sánchez to understand vast aspects of the game before becoming a full professional, a positive element that would allow him to acclimate rapidly with Pumas.
Founded in 1954, Pumas represent Mexico’s national university, with their Estadio Olímpico Universitario staging home matches on the main campus. Sánchez would earn a degree in dentistry during his time there, and his arrival would coincide with an extremely successful era for the club.
They would lift their first top-flight title after Sánchez’s addition, and their new forward would truly establish himself in his second campaign. He was the Primera División’s top scorer for the 1977-78 term with 26 goals, and earned his first caps with Mexico’s senior squad. Before his departure for Spain, a unique chapter of his career was seen in his final years at Pumas.
Sánchez spent two summers on-loan with the San Diego Sockers of the North American Soccer League (NASL) in 1979 and 1980, during a period of massive popularity for the game in the United States. With stars such as Pelé, Franz Beckenbauer, Johan Cruyff and George Best leading the way, younger players like Sánchez were a part of something as special as it was short-lived amongst their American audience. In 32 matches for San Diego, Sánchez netted 26 goals. The NASL folded following the 1984 season.
Sánchez’s goalscoring exploits continued in both Mexico and the US, culminating in a glorious final campaign with Pumas during 1980-81. The club captured their second league title, along with the CONCACAF Champions Cup and the Copa Interamericana. Sánchez was drawing the attention of Europe, and Spain would eventually be his destination with Atlético Madrid.
Only in his early 20s, and set for a brand-new setting and atmosphere, Sánchez knew he could be productive in the final third for any side. He completed his run at Pumas with 104 goals in 200 matches, a remarkable ratio in any era. However, adjusting to life in LaLiga would take time, and brilliance was not seen immediately from Sánchez with Los Colchoneros.
Eight league goals were a somewhat underwhelming output for the Mexican star during the 1981-82 campaign, but that would change with the arrival of a new manager. Luis Aragonés returned to the Spanish capital after a short spell at Real Betis, and Sánchez thrived under his tutelage. The 1984-85 season was a particularly incredible year, as Sánchez earned his first Pichichi Trophy (LaLiga’s golden boot award) with 19 goals.
Alongside striker Luis Mario Cabrera, Sánchez was a true force of nature in the opposing half, leading Atlético to a triumph in the Copa del Rey final against Athletic Club. Although they would finish second in LaLiga to Barcelona, they would gain a measure of revenge on the Catalans by defeating them in the Spanish Super Cup. But Sánchez had a fresh challenge awaiting him instead, and a decision that would alter the coming years for two clubs.
That summer, the prolific forward confirmed a controversial switch to city rival Real Madrid, and would begin a spectacular stretch with three more consecutive LaLiga scoring titles. Only the great Alfredo Di Stéfano can match that impressive feat of four straight years, and Sánchez was able to add immense quality to a supremely talented squad.
For Los Blancos, he came at a time when the club’s academy was producing genuine stars for the senior side. A group nicknamed La Quinta del Buitre would bring a dominant period for Real in the late 1980s. Emilio Butragueńo, Martín Vázquez, Manuel Sanchís, Miguel Pardeza and Míchel all came through the club’s youth system, and Sánchez only helped to make the squad better. Real Madrid would win an incredible five consecutive LaLiga trophies from 1985-86 to 1989-90 with a potent mixture of attacking excellence and solid defensive work.
Within a line-up bursting with quality, Sánchez was able to flourish thanks to outstanding coaches throughout his time at the Santiago Bernabéu. It began with the steady hand of Luis Molowny, taking over following the dismissal of Amancio Amaro. Sánchez and Molowny would lead Los Merengues to a league title and another triumph in the UEFA Cup during the forward’s first year at Real.
The club would make a change in the summer of 1986, announcing Leo Beenhakker as the new manager. The Dutch coach spent three years with Real, and this period was dominant for both the team and for Sánchez. Beenhakker’s tactics got the best out of the attack, and Sánchez was a key piece to the puzzle. Each of the manager’s three seasons resulted in a league title, along with a Copa del Rey and two Spanish Super Cups.
Sánchez won two of his four consecutive Pichichis under Beenhakker, and his skills seemed to be best utilised with his guidance. John Toshack and the legendary Alfredo Di Stéfano would follow in later years, as well as a brief return for Beenhakker in 1992. Sánchez’s incredible 38-goal haul in 1989-90 featured an amazing footnote, as each of the goals were scored with only one touch. That fact speaks volumes to his magnificent ability to put himself in the right position at the right time, something that is rooted in sharp coaching and preparation.
“Pentapichichi” finished his Real Madrid career in 1992, netting 208 goals in 283 games. He is sixth in the club’s all-time scoring list, with one of the higher ratios having played so few matches compared to others. Sánchez’s run in LaLiga was truly extraordinary, although his decision to sign with Los Blancos has not left a positive viewpoint for Atlético fans.
Atlético Madrid opened the Wanda Metropolitano in 2017, a spectacular new stadium for the club in a variety of ways. Plaques outside the structure were placed for every Atlético player that took part in more than 100 matches, but Sánchez’s was vandalised by home supporters. While he may be looked at as a legend in one part of Madrid, another section certainly does not feel the same way.
For El Tri, he played in three FIFA World Cups, scoring 29 international goals for the senior team. Sánchez exited Real Madrid for Club América, but would only spend one year in Mexico before returning to Spain for a brief spell with Rayo Vallecano. This movement would come to define the latter stages of his career, but Sánchez always managed to provide goals on his travels. His vision and touch often gave him an advantage over opposing defenders in almost any league.
Stops at Atlante and Austria’s FC Linz led to joining the Dallas Burn ahead of Major League Soccer’s inaugural season in 1996. Sánchez became one of only two players to feature in the NASL and MLS, truly spanning across generations of the game in the United States. Even as a 38-year-old, Sánchez could be a productive option up front, helping Dallas to the MLS play-offs with 11 league goals. He would retire from professional football in 1997 with Mexican side Celaya.
Sánchez transitioned to a manager role in the coming years, including at Pumas and Necaxa, eventually signing on to lead Mexico’s national team in 2006. There was early promise, but a string of poor results led to his sacking in March of 2008. Passionate, emotional and a fierce competitor, Sánchez brought many of the qualities that made him a star player into the coaching world. But as many greats have seen, sometimes those elements can actually work against you.
His most recent stop as a manager was with Pachuca in 2012, followed by work for various broadcasters as a football analyst. Pundits and fans often discuss overall style, as different players can deliver different dimensions to a match. LaLiga has been the home to many of the game’s all-time greats. From Telmo Zarra to Ferenc Puskás, Ronaldinho to Raúl, or Quini to Mario Kempes, so much of the Spanish top flight can appear revolutionary in terms of attacking brilliance. But even in today’s world of superior fitness and data analytics, what Hugo Sánchez could do on the pitch simply cannot be duplicated.
In the current decade, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have completely changed fans’ perception and expectations for what a forward can accomplish. With Messi’s other-worldly control of the ball and Ronaldo’s unstoppable power, each have established themselves and their own type of style. Sánchez did the exact same, and LaLiga saw something quite special at the peak of his powers.
No other LaLiga player combined pace, acrobatics, creativity and clinical finishing like Hugo Sánchez. Remembered on the pitch for his flair, his abilities and the chilena, supporters of a certain generation remember his time with Real Madrid fondly. Sánchez played the game his way, and in the end he became CONCACAF’s finest export.
BY ROY EMANUEL