Carlos Sanchez caps final River season with South American POTY award
For the second year in a row, journalists across South America have voted a River Plate player as South American Footballer of the Year. Uruguayan newspaper El Pais has organised the poll since 1986, and on New Year's Eve they announced that Uruguay midfielder Carlos Sanchez had won the 2015 poll by a landslide, to succeed Colombian forward Teo Gutierrez, who won in 2014.
Sanchez, who is now off to continue his career with Monterrey of Mexico, racked up 182 votes in the poll, way ahead of the player in second place -- although to be fair, the runner-up only had six months to make his case. The man in question was Carlos Tevez, who returned to Boca Juniors in the middle of the year and played a huge part in getting them over the line to claim a league and cup double.
Tevez claimed 61 votes, which, considering the poll is only for players who play their club football in Latin America (and therefore specifically excluded his stellar first half of 2015 for Juventus), is not a bad showing at all. He has the advantage of playing in one of the continent's "big two" leagues -- the last time a player based outside of Argentina or Brazil won was 2007, when Club America of Mexico's Salvador Cabanas got the gong -- but even so, to finish so high up in the standings without taking part in any continental competition is impressive in itself.
Tevez led both by example and in front of the post-match microphones, chiding the team (and himself) after matches that, in his consideration, Boca had been lucky to win, and praising the positives when he saw them and advising less-experienced teammates. He even managed to inject a bit of much-needed humour back into the Superclasico rivalry with a few digs at River, delivered with a cheeky smile or a wink. They delighted Boca fans without totally outraging River supporters -- a difficult task to pull off given how poisonous the atmosphere around that rivalry became during 2015.
All the same, it's probably fair that Tevez didn't claim top prize for himself this time. He was absolutely key to Boca claiming the titles they so badly needed after a few years of poor football and underwhelming results. But if there was some discussion about Gutierrez's win last year (in a year in which Sanchez finished second and their River teammate Leonardo Pisculichi came third), it seems about right that the winner should be a River player this year.
After all, 2015 was the year in which River finally ended the 19-year wait for a third Copa Libertadores. They did so largely through tremendously gritty performances (and a couple of memorable comebacks), rather than with the high-pressing, free-flowing football that had seen them claim the region's second-tier continental cup, the Copa Sudamericana, in 2014. But as a team, they played for one another and never gave up, and no player embodied that attitude better than Sanchez.
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The Uruguayan built on a fine 2014 (during which his form for River earned him a place in the Uruguay team for the first time, shortly before his 30th birthday) by stepping up a gear in 2015. With Matias Kranevitter acting as the metronomic passer to keep things ticking in River's midfield, Sanchez provided the forward thrust down the right, scored some vital goals -- including the only one of the called-off round-of-16 tie against Boca, and the second in the final -- and his crossing was a constant danger to opponents.
It's the fifth time overall that a Uruguayan player has won the award, with Sanchez the fourth individual from his country to take the trophy -- Enzo Francescoli won it twice, in 1984 when it was organised by Venezuela's El Mundo, and in 1995. That's something that will particularly have pleased the organisers, one imagines.
Sanchez was joined by countryman Egidio Arevalo Rios in a Best XI (voted for by more than 300 journalists across South America) that was dominated by Argentines. Five of Sanchez's Copa Libertadores-winning teammates made it, including current Everton defender Ramiro Funes Mori, with Tevez and Racing star Gustavo Bou, the top scorer in the Libertadores after hitting six goals in his first two matches in the group stage, also making the cut.
The managerial award was, as expected, a battle of two Argentines, with Chile boss Jorge Sampaoli beating River's Marcelo Gallardo. Ecuador boss Gustavo Quinteros made it an Argentine 1-2-3. Sampaoli's win led El Pais to describe the manager gong as "an Argentine dynasty" -- eight of the past 10 winners have been Argentine, with only Uruguay manager Oscar Washington Tabarez breaking the stranglehold in 2010 for taking Uruguay to the World Cup semifinals, and in 2011 for winning the Copa America.
Considering how much he embodied River's team spirit, it's a minor irony that Sanchez is now leaving for Monterrey in acrimonious circumstances having failed to agree to a new contract. River's board are trying to renew the contracts of players whose current ones are set to expire soon, with the understanding that those players will be allowed to move if a transfer fee gets offered for them.
Given the ever-precarious state of Argentines clubs' finances, River are essentially hoping said players will be happy to do this, and probably forego part of a chunkier signing-on fee at their new club. Club directors are hopeful some players will agree, but in Sanchez's case, it didn't prove possible.
River will hope another player now steps forward and performs to the same level in 2016 that Gutierrez and Sanchez have done in each of the past two years. If 2016 turns out to be Tevez's year, he'd become the first player ever to win the award four times, but there's a lot of football to be played first.
Sam Kelly is based in Buenos Aires and writes for ESPN FC, When Saturday Comes, The Blizzard and Howler. Follow him on Twitter @HEGS_com.