Spanish newspaper Marca recently labelled Carlos Vela “the new Hugo Sanchez”, and certainly there are similarities between the Mexicans: the teenager is a forward currently playing in Spain, with Salamanca – just as his compatriot used to at Real Madrid – he has black curly hair, wears the No 9 shirt and has the happy knack of imposing himself on games. But in playing style, Vela is actually much closer to Barcelona’s Argentinian starlet Lionel Messi.
The youngster, who will be 18 on March 1, made a name for himself last year at the Under-17 World Championship, where his Golden Boot-winning tally of five goals went a long way to bringing the team the trophy, Mexico’s first world title at any age level.
Not surprisingly, Vela’s amazing pace, finishing ability and versatility attracted the attention of several top European sides. But it was Arsenal who showed most conviction, snapping him up from leading Mexican club Guadalajara – for whom Vela never made a first-team appearance – on a five-year contract.
Although FIFA regulations prevent the inter-continental transfers of under-18s, Guadalajara insist Arsenal paid a substantial sum for Vela. “Arsenal have already paid the full transfer fee,” said president Jorge Vergara. “I don’t have the exact figure, but it is close to $3million [£1.5m]. He was a player we were looking to be a big part of our future and there was no way we were going to let him go for free.
“We expected him to stay for two or three years and then leave as the big star he was going to be, but in the end it was his decision and there was nothing we could do about it. I hope he won’t regret leaving the club at such an early age.”
However, the Gunners found it impossible to obtain a work permit for the youngster, so he was shipped out to Celta Vigo on a two-year loan. Vela did play with the Galician team during pre-season last summer but was deemed too young for the first team and was packed off again, this time to second division Salamanca.
The Celta coaching staff may well be regretting that decision. Vela has flourished since arriving in Castile, with his darting forward runs and amazing dribbling ability making him an instant hit at the Estadio Helmantico. Not only that but Vela is Salamanca’s top scorer despite playing in an unusual left midfield position. Celta, meanwhile, had only a mediocre autumn campaign and would surely have benefited from having the teen sensation on board.
Vela loves his new surroundings but is aware that his future lies elsewhere. “I’d love to win promotion for the fans,” he says.
“That would be my legacy here as I don’t know what will happen at the end of the season.”
The likely scenario is a return to Celta to complete his loan period then finally off to Arsenal full time.
The Gunners have monitored Vela’s progress and chief scout Steve Rowley believes he has the quality to develop into a top-class player.
“Carlos is a great talent,” he says. “He’s not a typical striker. He’s a wonderful poacher. He’s fast, a great dribbler and instinctive in the box.”
Vela, who is learning English, hopes to be playing in the Premiership within two years.
“I want to play there alongside Thierry Henry. It would be a dream,” he says.
For now, though, his goal must be simply to carry on driving defences crazy as he tries to help steer Salamanca to what would be a dramatic return to the Spanish top flight.
By Martin del Palacio Langer