By Thomas Becker
It's a moment of pride the Sanchez family will never forget.
When Francisco Sanchez earned a spot on UPEI's men's soccer roster, he joined older brother Ignacio, marking the first time the siblings suited up for the same team.
It was an emotional day for Ignacio seeing his younger brother don the same green and white uniform he himself wore with honour and class over the last five years.
"When I started university a year late, we realized there was an opportunity to play together," Ignacio said. "I know he has worked hard to get here and to be a Panther, so being able to see him suit up meant a lot to me."
For Francisco, he knew this would be a one-year deal and wanted to make the most of it.
"The moment I made the team I was excited to know that I'd be playing with my brother," he said. "I wanted to raise my game and try to learn from him as much as I could."
Soccer has always been a big part of their lives and with it came that competitive nature.
"Growing up with Fran was always entertaining, we have a lot of memories that we look back on and laugh about now," Ignacio said. "Fran is a few years younger than me, so when it came to playing sports or games, I had to win. And when that game was soccer, we pushed that competitive edge."
Their father, Javier Sanchez, comes from Argentina, where soccer is a prominent sport and also happens to be the home of legendary footballer, Lionel Messi. Javier made sure the kids always had a ball to kick around, just in case they'd pick up the sport later in life. Turns out they did.
IGNACIO 'NACHO' SANCHEZ
Ignacio credits his father for introducing them both to "the beautiful game" and teaching them the fundamentals of the sport. Their parents were always their two biggest supporters and pushed them to take it as far as they could.
Ignacio fell in love with game's humble simplicity and has been kicking a ball for as long as he can remember.
"Soccer has helped me become who I am today, teaching me more life lessons and values than some would believe," he said. "It's brought me some of my best friends in life and I owe most of who I am to soccer, as well as my family."
The 23-year-old came to the Panthers as a highly touted prospect from Bluefield High School and brought with him international experience. In his Grade 10 year, Ignacio returned to his birth country of Argentina for six months and gained valuable insight playing at Estudiantes de Río Cuarto. After graduating high school, he along with close friend Sam Smiley, spent some time in Scotland and played for Partick Thistle Football Club's under-20 team in Glasgow.
By the time he made his way to UPEI, the skilled midfielder started opening night in 2015 and cemented himself as one of the team's core pieces of the future.
"Nacho is an excellent technical player who has a very high soccer IQ," said Panthers head coach Lewis Page. "He's more of a 'box-to-box' midfielder. He covers a lot of ground and defends his own penalty box as well as getting into the opposition's half."
In 2018, Page entrusted Ignacio with the captaincy role. He embraced the opportunity right away and after a disappointing season, he demonstrated the leader he was and vowed the team would return to the playoffs in 2019.
"Nothing in this league is given, it's earned," Ignacio said prior to the season. "We still have that bitter taste in our mouth and this year we have a point to prove, not only to ourselves, but to the university and province we represent."
He accomplished what he set out to do and now, after a 5-5-2 season, he'll get an opportunity to fight for championship once again.
FRANCISCO 'FRAN' SANCHEZ
Francisco shared a similar path to UPEI as his brother, and even travelled to Argentina in Grade 10 to play for Atenas, the rival club that Ignacio competed against five years earlier.
While they both play the same position and share the same goal of claiming that Atlantic University Sport (AUS) title, the 18-year old has had a very different season, one dedicated to growth and development.
The rookie had to work his way on the team and wasn't guaranteed a roster spot. But with so much depth at the midfield positions, he didn't get a chance to show what he could do on the field.
"I haven't seen as much playing time as I hoped for, but the team results are the most important in my eyes."
For some players that'd be enough of a reason to quit, but Francisco is the type of person who'll find a way to work his way toward playing time. Like his brother, he brings a mature attitude to the field and sees every opportunity as a reason to get better. And having Nacho there to push him, like they did when they were younger, has really helped him progress.
"Even when I had bad practices and wasn't playing well, Nacho would push me to be better," he said. "When we're training against each other in intersquad games he never takes it easy on me and is always trying to make me a better player."
Page has watched the youngster carefully over the last few months and knows there's potential there, it's just a matter of preparation and timing for the freshman.
"If Fran can get stronger and more fit, he has the ability to really contribute to this team."
PASSING THE TORCH
As life gets set to steer the two in new directions yet again, they'll always have the year they played together to look back on. Not only did that opportunity bring them closer together, but it also revealed some valuable lessons they can take on their next chapter.
For Francisco, the main thing Ignacio has taught him is to bring a level of passion to anything he does and put in the effort to get where he wants, because without that there's no point.
"My goals heading into my sophomore year is to keep working hard in the offseason and raise the level even higher and hopefully that will help me see the field a bit more."
Francisco's resilience and perseverance is something Ignacio has admired this season. Despite a lack of playing time, Ignacio noticed that his brother came to every practice with his chest out and head high ready to work hard.
"I think that's an important quality to have as a soccer player and a person because when things aren't going your way, you still keep fighting until the end," Ignacio said. "That's part of the culture as a Panther and I think he is a great representation of that."
With his career winding down, Ignacio said he'll miss that family-like atmosphere at the clubhouse that he helped create and was only strengthened when his brother came aboard.
"I hope we've been able to pass that down to the younger guys coming in, so they can continue to carry that forward," he said. "We'll go on with life after this, but I'll never forget the people here and how much they've influenced the person I am today."
After this weekend's championship, win or lose, the torch will be passed to Francisco, who'll look to walk is own path as a Panther and leave a legacy that will continue to honour the Sanchez name.
"I think more than anything, I'm just proud for him," Ignacio said of his brother. "I know he'll achieve great things here representing the green and white."