February 11, 1998 should have been the best day of Michael Owen’s life, instead it was Marcelo Salas who rocked Wembley.
It may only have been a World Cup warm up but the Chile striker delivered an exhilarating performance and tamed a confident Three Lions side.
Salas stunned England back in 1998, announcing himself to a European audienceAFP – Getty
He was The Matador, of course, and Glenn Hoddle’s side were slain on the Wembely turf.
Salas’ first goal was one of his specialities, an exquisite touch followed by a venomous volley, while his second again displayed his combination of skilfulness and ruthlessness.
Sol Campbell was led on a merry dance on the edge of the penalty area by his opponent’s quick feet. A Cruyff turn fully bamboozled the then-Tottenham star and he felled him in the box. Up got Salas and poor Nigel Martyn was sent the wrong way from 12 yards.
“Olé. Olé. Olé. Olé … Salas is the new Diego Maradona,” cried the backpage of the Daily Mirror.
Salas’ first goal was true perfection and rated as one of the best ever seen at WembleyAFP – Getty
English fans didn’t know much about the Chilean, who had just joined Lazio for £12million from River Plate, despite interest from Manchester United, but their education was swift in the shadow of Wembley’s two towers.
Sir Alex Ferguson had travelled 14,000 miles to discover Salas’ talents for himself in November 1997 as his hunt for an Eric Cantona replacement continued.
“What we have here is a young player, 22 years of age in fact, with a definite chance of playing at the very highest level, but one costing a great deal of money,” Ferguson noted in his book, A Will to Win: The Manager’s Diary.
Ferguson went the extra mile to scout SalasGetty
“Therefore I have to think very carefully whether this is exactly what I want.
“I am looking for someone who is different from what we already have at Old Trafford. If he were someone like Ronaldo, who can create things on his own from nothing, then I would be tempted.
“I am certainly interested, otherwise I wouldn’t have tackled a round trip of 14,000 miles just to watch one football match [Chile’s 3-0 win over Bolivia] .
“I’m pretty tired at the end of it all, but I wouldn’t have felt happy if I had not seen him for myself.”
He would note elsewhere: “I think Salas could play here without any problem.”
“He’s not only one of the best Chileans, but one of the best South American strikers of all time.”
Such a tribute from no less than @Ronaldo shows how special @LaRoja’s Marcelo Salas was. We wish ‘El Matador’ a very special 46th birthday pic.twitter.com/sKDOj0dy7u
— FIFA World Cup (@FIFAWorldCup) December 24, 2020
Wembley was just a stepping stone. Lazio hadn’t won a Scudetto since 1974 and a new hero was in town.
His debut came at the start for the 1998/99 season, Salas, and fellow new signing Christian Vieri were just the firepower needed to take them to a second-place finish that year, and saw them claim UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup glory against Mallorca at Villa Park in the competition’s final campaign.
The Chilean was the club’s top scorer in the league and in all competitions and he need not rue missing out on Man United.
“[A United move] was something that could have happened and been fantastic for me, but it didn’t,” Salas said. “It is the same for all people in their lives. But I am very happy to be with Lazio, a great Italian club, living in a great city, enjoying my football.”
Salas scored 49 goals in 117 matches for LazioGetty Images – Getty
Vieri was flipped the next summer to Inter Milan for double the €25million fee Lazio paid, enabling to sign Diego Simeone and Juan Sebastian Veron, among others to come in.
The balance struck allowed Salas to again flourish and in a low scoring season in Italy, his 12 league goals were all it took for him to be the club’s top scorer in a title winning campaign, while they also triumphed in the Coppa Italia, won the UEFA Super Cup against United, where he netted the winner with a classic two-touch goal, and reached the Champions League quarter-finals.
35′ | #MUFCLazio 0-1
GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOL!! GOOOOOOOOOL!! GOOOOOOL!! Marcelo #Salas ci porta avanti!
Il Matador riceve da Mancini e calcia con il mancino beffando van der Gouw!#SSLHistory pic.twitter.com/e7eDvWRIPo
— S.S.Lazio (@OfficialSSLazio) March 31, 2020
Juventus finished second that season, scoring just 46 goals in 34 games but conceding just 20, a striker was all they needed, Salas made perfect sense.
The fee was €28.5m but he could have gone to any one of 10 top European clubs, Chelsea, Man United, Arsenal, Liverpool, Barcelona, Milan and Inter all were keen.
Real Madrid were at the front of the queue and planned to raid Serie A for both Zinedine Zidane and Salas in the summer of 2001.
Zidane, though, would cost £46.2million and ended up being their only signing of the summer with no funds left for the Chilean.
Turin it was, but the dream move quickly became a nightmare.
Salas was hit by a brutal injury during his spell with JuventusGetty Images – Getty
A winner in Juve’s third game of the season was promising but five games later he ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament and made only 11 appearances all year with that solitary goal.
The next campaign was equally bleak with three goals in 15 games and by the summer of 2003 he was being hawked out across Europe.
One deal which fell through had huge ramifications for the world of football – Juve plotted to move him on in a swap deal with a young Sporting Lisbon star.
Cristiano Ronaldo was impressing many suitors and a deal was brokered but Salas had other ideas.
“We had everything signed with Sporting Lisbon,” said Juve general manager Luciano Moggi.
“We had reached an agreement exchange between Cristiano and Marcelo Salas, who accepted. Salas went to Portugal to negotiate, but finally withdrew from the offer and chose to go to Argentina, to River Plate.”
River Plate was a special place for Salas and he’s an idol thereAFP – Getty
Luckily, Ronaldo eventually ended up in Turin, but at the end of his career.
Returning to Argentina on loan made sense and quickly Salas was again the toast of town, as he had been in his previous two-season spell.
In that first period he was an instant hero, his first goal for the club coming against rivals Boca Juniors at La Bombanera – it doesn’t get much better.
Having won two league titles in Chile in his early days, in Argentina he won the 1996 and 1997 Apertura tournaments, the 1997 Clausura and the 1997 South American Super Cup.
In 1997 he was also named the Footballer of the Year in Argentina and the South American Footballer of the Year.
El Matador Marcelo Salas, ex figura de River, cumple 46 años y recordamos este GOLAZO que le convirtió a Atlético Nacional en el Millonario. pic.twitter.com/R1EgBf3kan
— TyC Sports (@TyCSports) December 24, 2020
His return saw him claim the 2004 Clausura, while he helped River to the semi-finals of the 2005 Copa Libertadores.
On the way to this feat he scored one of the best goals of his career against Liga de Quito, featured at the end of the video below. It was, of course, a stunning two-touch strike, including a vicious volley to finish.
Marcelo Salas cumple 46 años.
Así lo recordó @RiverPlate
116 partidos, 47 goles y 5 títulos (4 locales y la Supercopa 1997) en el Millonario. pic.twitter.com/T0a2ZPT9uT
— El Gráfico (@elgraficoweb) December 24, 2020
Before his career was done, European clubs again took note of Salas with some rumours of interest from Barcelona but in 2005 he would head to another former club, Universidad de Chile, where he started his senior career.
One and a half seasons were on loan from Juventus, before two more having been released by the Italian giants. Still a hero, and with 113 goals in 208 league matches, he just couldn’t get a crowning piece of silverware as they finished on the losing side in two cup finals.
Retirement would come in 2009 but El Matador had inspired a new generation of strikers in South America.
Salas was still playing for Chile and scoring regularly in 2007AFP – Getty
Radamel Falcao, Gonzalo Higuain, Javier Saviola, and David Trezeguet, are among the superstars who have hailed him as their idol, praising him in interviews or imitating his famous celebration – down on one knee, head bowed, and finger pointing skyward.
Alexis Sanchez went one better, though, 15 years after Salas hit Wembley like a wrecking ball, the former Arsenal and Man United man struck twice in a 2-0 at the new Wembley.
But it couldn’t top Salas’ double, how could it? It seemed in tribute rather than being a rival.
It will be hard to better El Matador, his impact in South America and Europe has left an impressive legacy which still continues to this day.