Meet Álex Sánchez: The One-Handed Professional Footballer Who Is Inspiring A Generation
Eleven years on and Alejandro "Álex" Sánchez looks back at that history-making substitute appearance in front of 50,000 fans as a life-changing chapter in his story. "It was the best moment of my life for sure. It was a dream come true. It was everything I had fought for since I was born."
It is November 8, 2009, and Real Zaragoza have travelled to the Mestalla to face an in-form Valencia team filled to the brim with star names.
Unai Emery's side dominate from the get-go as a fresh-faced David Silva opens the scoring early in the first half. Pablo Hernandez makes it 2-0 moments later and the game is well and truly put to bed just before the half-time whistle as David Villa slots past Javier Vallejo.
Valencia comfortably hold on to their lead but it's an 86th-minute substitute that grabs the headlines.
After scoring 12 goals in 10 games for Zaragoza's reserve team in the weeks and months prior to his debut, striker Alex Sanchez was given the opportunity to prove himself by highly-rated manager Marcelino Garcia Toral at the Mestalla.
It was not only a game-changing moment for Sanchez, but for anyone in the disabled community who dreamt of one day making it pro. The Spaniard had made history by becoming the first one-handed footballer to feature in a professional game.
He was also sharing the same pitch as David Villa; one of the world's best strikers and a player he grew up idolising.
It remains a pinch yourself moment for the Spaniard. "I remember every single moment of that November 8th," Sanchez tells SPORTbible.
"I was so nervous because there were more than 50,000 at the stadium that day. It's all I could think about when I was warming up but everything changed when the coach told me to come on. At that moment, I just got focused on enjoying the game as much as possible.
"After the game, I got hundreds of messages and calls on my phone but I called my family straight away to share my happiness with them."
Born without a right hand, Sanchez didn't let his disability stop him from trying to achieve his dream.
Football ultimately helped him integrate into society from the very beginning and as a kid growing up, he was, in his own words, "extremely lucky" to grow up in a family that gave him so much love and support.
"My childhood was full of joy and happiness," Sanchez says. "I never had any problem with my disability because I always accepted myself as I was. I reckon that playing football was the biggest challenge at that age but I have always had two legs to kick the ball. That was the most important factor to me growing up.
"I never paid a lot of attention to stranger's opinions. Plenty of people who talk about football have never even kicked a ball."
Sanchez originally played football for fun but at the age of 15, he soon began to realise he could become professional when he joined the best club in the city.
Then, after once again impressing at his local side, the Spaniard would receive a life-changing piece of news.
"It was one of the best moments in my life," recalls Sanchez.
"My coach at the time came to me to tell me that I would play for Real Zaragoza the coming season. I had been playing at school but that call would change my life. I realised that it was the first step to get into professional football.
"Since that moment, I found the game rewarding because of its huge demands."
The step up from amateur to professional was a difficult one. He soon realised that not everyone wanted him to succeed and that was "pretty hard" to deal with, but those lessons made Sanchez into a stronger person in the long run.
"At the beginning it was really hard because, theoretically speaking, I had to pass an exam every single day but you get used to it," Sanchez tells us.
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"I taught myself how to manage the pressure. When you get into professional football, you realise that some teammates do not want you to succeed and that was pretty hard too. Football is the most individual of the collective sports and you have to be ready for that."
Sanchez quickly made a name for himself in the reserve team at Zaragoza and soon made several appearances for the first team, but it wasn't without its challenges.
He admits to being overwhelmed in the aftermath of his La Liga debut against Valencia due to the reaction from certain media outlets, which in turn took a toll on his mental health.
"I think your mental health is one of the biggest challenges you face when becoming a professional footballer; especially if you are the first footballer in La Liga history to play with a disability like mine.
"I started to think about how my debut would be in terms of media coverage and honestly, everything about that moment was overwhelming. Some sensationalist media did not treat the facts as they should have done and that was quite hard at the time.
"I was only 20 and I had to listen, watch and read some unpleasant points of view. That was pretty hard but in the long run, it actually was really useful for me.
"I realised you cannot control everything people say about you."
Just a season after making his debut for the Liga club, Sanchez decided to move on and play in Segunda Division B for Teruel and Tudelano, where he continued to regularly find the net. He would then join Spanish first-division side Osasuna, who would later go on to play in La Liga.
During this time, Sanchez was naturally starting to become a role model to kids with a disability that were looking to make a career in sport.
In fact, the 31-year-old still receives letters from parents saying he is an inspiration to their children, more than 11 years on from his debut in Spain's top league.
"It makes me really happy to be a role model." he smiles. "I actually think it is one of the best aspects of my debut in La Liga. No doubt about it. I realised I might be a role model for these kids when their mums came to me to tell me their stories."
As a teenager all Sanchez wanted was to be recognised for his abilities as a player. But as he continues his journey in football - where he recently moved to Australia to play for Sydney Olympic, scoring 34 goals in 44 games - Alex has realised his unique platform to spread a positive message.
The striker has therefore decided to release a book in the coming months to tell his story and open up about life in relation to his disability.
"I think it is really important to normalise having a disability at an early age." he says. "To be a role model is a beautiful thing. There was no such role model when I was a kid, so if I can help I would be happy."
Away from the pitch, Sanchez has also completed a PhD in Law, a Master's degree in Politics and even written a book on human rights in sport; a subject he feels strongly about.
"Human rights in sport is important to me. I'm talking about the situation in Europe, because I don't know if it's the same situation in Australia but from my experience footballers don't have the same treatment like the rest of population.
"We were treated differently in different aspects of our lives. There are a lot of human rights issues where football players don't have the same rights as the rest of the people."
Sanchez is still playing professional football in Spain with CD Tudelano and is aiming to play for a few years more.
"Life is about passion and I have always been very passionate about football and law. I have spent my whole life playing football so I hope to spent the rest of my work life in something related to law.
"I'm excited about the next chapter of my life."
We're grateful to Alex for sharing his story with us and talking about the mental health challenges he faced after making his professional debut.
If you're experiencing distressing thoughts and feelings, the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) is there to support you. They're open from 5pm-midnight, 365 days a year. Their national number is 0800 58 58 58 and they also have a webchat service if you're not comfortable talking on the phone.
Or, if you've been affected by any of these issues and want to speak to someone in confidence, please don't suffer alone. Call Samaritans for free on their anonymous 24-hour phone line on 116 123.
Featured Image Credit: Instagram/Alex Sanchez
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