Football: Solano in mood to stamp his presence

Conrad Leach talks to a beaten finalist cast as the pride of Peru
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The Independent Online
FROM NORTH London to South America is not a journey many Premiership footballers undertake when they finish the season. But this is no exotic holiday for Nolberto Solano, and while most of the Newcastle United midfielder's team-mates continue to sun themselves after their FA Cup final defeat at Wembley last month, the Peruvian has travelled 6,000 miles to Paraguay for his next slice of football.

On Tuesday, Peru play their opening match in the Copa America, and Solano, 24, after becoming the first Peruvian to play in the FA Cup final, has a chance to put that chastening defeat by Manchester United behind him.

The man whose wedding was televised and whose face is on stamps in Peru helped provide a competitive start to the final but he acknowledges that Alex Ferguson's treble-winning men were the better team: "Being in the Cup final was very important but people only remember you if you win - Manchester United are a great team." Six weeks on he has to raise himself for another battle on the side of the underdogs. For Newcastle read Peru, for Manchester United, read Brazil, the current holders.

The Copa America, South America's equivalent of the European Championship, is played every two years - Solano played four years ago in Uruguay, but did not feature in 1997 as Peru concentrated on qualifying for the World Cup, failing only on goal difference after a gruelling programme of 16 matches.

Now Solano, bought last July by then Newcastle manager Kenny Dalglish for pounds 2.5m from Boca Juniors, where he played alongside his boyhood idol, Diego Maradona, is turning his attention to guiding his country through a tournament they have won only twice.

Their first opponents are Japan (tournament guests), and they also play Bolivia and the hosts. That, as Solano explains, is a game already charged with more than a hint of revenge. "We lost our game in Paraguay during the France 98 qualifiers, but it was a great atmosphere because of what was at stake. This time we play them again and that will mean full stadiums, and as Paraguay reached the last World Cup that will make everyone even more excited."

After experiencing an 80,000 crowd at Wembley, the salsa-dancing Solano is already looking forward to what he thinks will be an even hotter reception in Paraguay. "There will be an incredible atmosphere at the games," says the man nicknamed Nobby by the Newcastle faithful. "The fans are very passionate, so there are still fences around the stadiums. In South America, there can be violence outside the stadiums especially after derby games. Chile are our greatest rivals and we could play them in the quarter-finals."

Solano sees similarities between the current Peru and Newcastle United sides, in that they are both steadily improving, but now the immediate task for him and his teammates is to try to revive memories of the side, inspired by Teofilio Cubillas, who won the Copa America in 1975 and three years later beat Scotland in reaching the last eight of the World Cup. "It will be hard but not impossible for Peru to reach the quarter-finals but everyone will have their strongest teams out this year," Solano said. "The favourites are Brazil and Argentina, and maybe Colombia and Paraguay could spring a surprise. But I know that the other bigger countries have a bit more respect for us now because we are getting better."

For at least one salsa lover, the pace is about to step up a notch.