Robert Sanchez was fifth in line for Brighton at the start of the season but now he's competing for Spain's No 1 shirt with David de Gea. Watch Georgia vs Spain in World Cup Qualifying live on Sky Sports Premier League from 4.55pm on Sunday; kick-off 5pm
Saturday 27 March 2021 23:02, UK
There was no place for the £72m Kepa Arrizabalaga in the latest Spain squad, and while his omission wasn't much of a surprise given his lack of playing time at Chelsea, the identity of his replacement certainly raised a few eyebrows back home.
Desconocido - unknown - was the word that kept cropping up in the Spanish press when Luis Enrique picked Brighton's Robert Sanchez in Kepa's place. "Where has he come from?" asked El Mundo. Marca, meanwhile, called his inclusion a "bombshell".
Sanchez, 23, left Spain for England at the age of 16 and has never represented his country at youth level never mind senior level. Before his breakthrough with Brighton earlier this season, his only senior experience had come during loan spells with Rochdale and Forest Green Rovers in the third and fourth tiers.
Now, however, only a year after he was fighting against relegation in League One, Sanchez is competing with Manchester United's David de Gea - a player he idolised growing up - and Athletic Bilbao's Unai Simon for Spain's No 1 shirt.
The call-up follows his sudden emergence as one of the best young goalkeepers in the Premier League at Brighton.
Sanchez was one of four players behind first-choice Mat Ryan in Graham Potter's pecking order at the start of the campaign, but he was thrown in for his debut against Tottenham in November and has helped the Seagulls keep seven clean sheets in 17 games since becoming a regular starter six weeks later.
Potter, so impressed by Sanchez's impact, allowed the long-serving Ryan to join Arsenal during the January transfer window and handed his replacement a new long-term contract in February.
Sanchez described it all as a "dream come true" after receiving the call from Luis Enrique but those who know him best have always believed in his potential to reach the top.
Mark Anderson, an experienced recruitment specialist and former head of academy recruitment at Brighton, was sure of it from the moment he saw the towering teenager in action for a Levante youth team during a scouting trip to Spain in 2014.
"I just knew there was some serious potential in the lad," Anderson tells Sky Sports. "His feet were unbelievable. His shape, his size, his presence, his ability, his character… He just had all the signs.
"I've been doing this job for 35 years and I've only ever had the gut feeling a few times. It doesn't come very often, so when it does, I would happily bet my life savings on that player. It's easy to say it now he's broken through, but I always knew he would do well."
Anderson immediately set about trying to bring Sanchez to Brighton.
The move was arranged with help from Sergio Barila, Sanchez's agent at the time, and Ruben Mato, Brighton's head of scouting in Spain and Portugal, but the deal was a complex one, with several clubs owed compensation in addition to Levante.
It took around a year to get it over the line but Anderson always felt Sanchez was worth the wait and the player's desire to come to England was never in doubt.
"I used to get calls off Robert all the time because the deal was taking so long due to the complications with the other clubs," says Anderson, who has also held positions at Liverpool and Manchester United. "He used to say, 'Mark, Mark, what's happening? When can I come?' He wanted to be in the UK and wanted to be at Brighton."
Sanchez's talent was not lost on Levante, who had brought him into their academy a year earlier, but they didn't want to stand in his way and agreed to a deal which would benefit them in the long-term.
He was very, very focused and he still is. Everything he does, he does with absolute passion and desire
"He was a player with enormous potential and a good attitude to work and improve," David Salavert, the club's academy director between 2009 and 2016, tells Sky Sports.
"But his dream was to play in England, so, facing that situation, and aware that he had the potential to play at an elite level, we agreed a deal with Brighton containing future incentives."
Once everything was finally agreed, Sanchez moved to Brighton on his own and was housed in digs with a local couple. It was a daunting prospect for a 16-year-old who only spoke limited English but he embraced the challenge off the pitch as well as on it.
"A lot of boys have struggled over the years while I've been doing this but he took to it like a duck to water," says Anderson.
"He was such a character and he wanted to be part of the family. He didn't understand English culture and how it worked in professional football, so he would just turn up at meetings, he would walk around the building. He just always wanted to be involved.
"Nothing was ever a problem. He picked up English really well and I never once saw him become homesick. I never once saw him wobble. He really fitted into the club and the surroundings.
"That's a credit to Brighton as well. I've worked at a number of clubs but, to be honest with you, Brighton are the best in respect of support networks and providing all the things a young player needs. It's a fantastic environment and a great culture."
Sanchez joined a talented crop of young goalkeepers at Brighton including England youth internationals Christian Walton and Tom McGill but he was always highly rated, first by academy goalkeeping coach Justinas Gasiunas, then at senior level by Ben Roberts, who Sanchez has since described as a father figure.
Roberts was heavily involved in arranging his loan spells.
Forest Green and Rochdale were chosen in part because of their preference for playing out from the back in similar style to Brighton. But the exposure to lower-league football was also intended to help Sanchez physically and mentally mature.
There were some costly errors at Forest Green, including one against Exeter when he allowed an innocuous long ball to roll under his foot and into the net, but he made a positive impression on the staff there and it was a similar story when he moved up a league to Rochdale for the 2019/20 season.
"I'd tracked him for a while and seen most of his games at Forest Green, so I was able to see past those mistakes," Steve Collis, Rochdale's goalkeeping coach at the time, tells Sky Sports.
"I knew the qualities he had and I also knew that Forest Green was his first loan, which is not always easy as a goalkeeper at that age.
"There was just something about him. He's 6ft 6in, he's athletic, but he's also a natural footballer. He's quite comfortable with the ball at his feet. He can go long, he can go short, and he plays with good accuracy. It's part of the modern goalkeeper's make-up these days but his distribution was fantastic."
Sanchez was part of the Rochdale side that held Manchester United to a 1-1 draw at Old Trafford in the Carabao Cup third round in September 2019 before eventually going down 5-3 on penalties.
"To be honest, he didn't look out of place at all," says Collis. "If anything, he looked right at home on that sort of stage. He made a number of good saves and aerially he was superb."
Collis liked his character too. He describes Sanchez as an "infectious" personality who was popular in the dressing room and showed plenty of willingness to learn and improve. But it was the aerial ability he demonstrated that night at Old Trafford that stood out most and it's been similarly apparent at Brighton this season.
There was just something about him. He's 6ft 6in, he's athletic, but he's also a natural footballer. He's quite comfortable with the ball at his feet. He can go long, he can go short, and he plays with good accuracy
"I was watching Brighton's game at Liverpool a few weeks ago," says Collis. "They were winning 1-0 in the third minute of stoppage time but Liverpool had a corner. It was an outswinger, but I remember Rob taking the ball pretty much on the penalty spot.
"I just thought, 'Wow, that's world-class, that is, that's amazing'."
Sanchez's aerial ability can be seen in the statistics this season. Since becoming Brighton's No 1 in December, only Aston Villa's Emi Martinez has made more catches among Premier League 'keepers. Sanchez also ranks highly in terms of passes and clean sheets.
He has brought composure and authority to Brighton's defence - Potter's side have only conceded 17 goals in 18 Premier League games with him starting compared to 19 goals in 11 games without him - and there have been eye-catching saves too - including a stunning, fingertip stop to deny Carlos Vinicius during January's 1-0 win over Tottenham.
His Spain call-up surprised many but not those who have worked him. In fact, the only surprise to Anderson was that he was never given a chance in the country's youth teams.
"It's a massive statement and I made it a long, long time ago but for me he's world-class and we are starting to see that now," he says.
"I tried my hardest, and so did his previous agent, to get him into the Spain set-up as a young player. They were aware that he was good and that he was progressing but for whatever reason he got overlooked.
"He just stuck it, and stuck at it, and stuck at it, and that's what's shone through with him. He was very, very focused and he still is. Everything he does, he does with absolute passion and desire. Let's hope he can do well on this camp and get a position in there but the experience alone will be good for him."
There is pride at his progress among those who knew him back at Levante too. "It's a source of great happiness," says Salavert. "Levante's academy helps to develop lots of professional players and it always makes me proud when I hear news from them, to think that their lives are going well and they are happy."
That certainly applies to Sanchez. There were raised eyebrows when his name appeared on Luis Enrique's squad list but he is there on merit and he's earned his place the hard way.
Desconocido? Probably not for much longer.
Watch Georgia vs Spain in World Cup Qualifying live on Sky Sports Premier League from 4.55pm on Sunday; kick-off 5pm