Nolberto Solano: Master blaster

When not scoring with his trademark free-kicks, Newcastle's Nolberto Solano loves to play his trumpet, and is also a man of forthright opinions. In a remarkably frank interview, the Peruvian talks to Simon Rushworth about life on Tyneside, his friendship with Diego Maradona and why he wishes the English had colonised his country rather than Spain
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The Independent Online

It is little wonder Nolberto Solano strolls into work every morning sporting a smile as wide as the River Tyne. Where once he climbed aboard a rickety school bus for the painful 40-minute journey to his junior football club, he now drives an air-conditioned German saloon the short distance from his leafy suburban home to Newcastle United's training ground.

Where, as the youngest child of seven raised in an unforgiving Lima favela, he was often forced to kick a tin can into a cardboard box, Solano now lines up a row of seven brand new leather footballs before dispatching each one over an imaginary wall and into the back of an empty net.

Where, as a 10-year-old with only his treasured trumpet for company, he once dreamed of playing football for a living, he now faces the reality of everyday life alongside Alan Shearer, Michael Owen and Shay Given. "I am very, very lucky," smiles the man they call Peru's David Beckham.

In an era when too many impressionable young Premiership footballers take their privileged lifestyle for granted, it is incredibly refreshing to discover that the English game is not entirely overrun by greed, self-promotion and immorality. Sure, Solano enjoys his nights out on Newcastle's Quayside and was even the subject of one particularly salacious tabloid sting last summer. However, nobody could seriously accuse the shy and retiring South American of bringing his profession into disrepute. "I owe football everything," he added. "I would never throw this away."

It is impossible to imagine this eloquent, well dressed, ambitious 31-year-old, who commands respect far beyond Newcastle's dressing-room, as a nervous teenager braced for a life of hardship as a result of poor education. If Solano's life now, compared to then, has been transformed beyond belief then his music remains the one constant.

"When I was at Boca Juniors my flatmate bought me a trumpet," explained Maradona's former midfield partner at the famous Buenos Aires club. "I told my friend I liked to play and he just turned up with it one day.

"I was in a band at school but I left when I was 14. Eight years later I signed for Boca and picked up a trumpet again. But I couldn't find a teacher in Argentina and I didn't push myself.

"When I moved to England I had the time to learn the instrument properly again. But I was inspired by my first neighbours in Newcastle. They had three children and all three played instruments. I was always hearing the flute or the saxophone through my walls.

"I asked the mother if she knew where I could get trumpet lessons. It turned out that the lady who taught her kids was married to a trumpet player. It started from there. At first I couldn't understand the trumpet teacher and a Spanish guy called Roberto translated. We became very good friends."

Solano has the ability to play music, as well as football, professionally but accepts he cannot excel at both, simultaneously. For now his beloved trumpet is a serious hobby. "I enjoy playing music," he added. "And I love listening to it. I have always felt fortunate playing football for Newcastle United and living in such a beautiful city. But on the bad days my music lifts my soul.

"When I am driving into training in the middle of December, and it is dark and cold outside, I play loud salsa music in my car. It makes me happy. It makes me want to train. It makes me want to score great goals in a black and white shirt."

Solano has specialised in scoring a number of truly great goals this season, following his much heralded return from Aston Villa on transfer deadline day last summer. His audacious right-footed effort against Everton at St James' Park was the Match of the Day goal of the month for February. Few players would have attempted to execute a curling shot from 18 yards with the outside of the boot. Even fewer would have succeeded.

That sublime touch, like so many of Solano's more artistic moments, was reminiscent of a young Maradona in his prime. The pair became close friends during their season together at Boca and they still talk today. "Maradona used to say I was his favourite player at the time," Solano said. "Imagine how that made me feel! When I moved to Boca, Maradona decided to return home and play football again in Argentina. He had had problems at the World Cup in 1994 and then went to work with Ben Johnson in Canada.

"In 1995 he decided to come out of retirement and he signed for Boca. I was very proud to play alongside him. It was an honour. I was so happy. We played for five or six months together and some days he was brilliant, some days he was not. But you never lose your talent and your skill. The biggest lesson I learnt from Maradona was to remain positive and be a winner. He was determined to win at everything he did.

"He was a big presence in the dressing-room. He got everyone going and he was happy to accept responsibility.

"He made you feel like the best player in the world. I thought my only chance of being on the same pitch as him would be if I played for Peru against Argentina but suddenly I had this wonderful opportunity."

Solano makes the most of his opportunities. However, it saddens one of Peru's rare sporting success stories that his fellow countrymen do not share his determination, ambition and desire to explore new horizons.

"When I was 10 or 11 I played with a lot of talented kids," he said. "When I was in the Under-14s we won everything. But I am the only one who made it out of Lima. That's the tragedy of Peru. We have quality but no organisation and that goes for everything, not just football.

"The mentality of Peruvian people means that too many players fall away. In Brazil and Argentina people are strong-minded and ambitious. In Peru it is the opposite. Uruguay is a country of three or four million people. We have 25 million. But just compare our records in the World Cup or our economies.

"Nobody believes they can make it to the top and nobody sets targets. It's like learning English at school. Nobody does it because they don't ever imagine they will need it. This lack of ambition is part of our culture. My people need to get out of Peru to truly appreciate what they have there and what opportunities are available to them."

Solano got out but he intends to go back. His immediate dream is to manage his boyhood favourites in Peruvian football's top division but he talks as if he has a far wider social agenda. His English teacher often tells him that he must learn to speak like a diplomat and, despite his protestations to the contrary, a move into the political arena cannot be ruled out.

"I talk to my friends about Peru's past and how we allowed the Spanish to colonise us so easily without gaining any of their expertise," he added. "Three or four hundred years ago the Spanish invaded Peru without any problem. They might have had horses and guns but we had 10,000 Incas against their few hundred invaders. How was it allowed to happen?

"Our problem, and it is no different now, is that we are a country of traitors. We stab each other in the back, we don't work together and we don't see the bigger picture. There are a lot of factions within the country. It's sad to say that. But Peru could be a great nation. Our land is rich, the seas around us are well stocked and we have a big population of working age. But there is corruption and in-fighting everywhere you look.

"We wish we had been colonised by the English. We look at the Commonwealth countries - places like South Africa and Australia - and see how successful they have become. We learnt nothing but our language from the Spanish. We have everything we need to live well but our people need to learn from the past to enjoy a good future."

Newcastle United would do well to do the same. With strong personalities such as Solano, Shearer and Given playing prominent roles in recent seasons it is one of football's great enigmas that the Magpies have lurched from one painful failure to the next. Another campaign mired in mid-table mediocrity has driven supporters to breaking point and the club appear no nearer to appointing Graeme Souness's permanent successor. Solano, working with his fifth Newcastle manager ahead of tomorrow's Tees-Tyne derby against Middlesbrough, is still confident North-east football's sleeping giant can stir again.

"The people who might manage this club will be looking at us and deciding how competitive we can really be," he added. "Can we get back to a level where we are fighting with Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United like we were in my first spell with the club? I know our squad isn't strong enough yet. But we have to take risks this summer and try to get back to where we were. The top clubs are always taking risks whether they have been successful or not.

"The chairman and the board must decide where they want this club to be and then appoint the manager they think can take us there. It's so sad for the fans that this season has ended in this way. I feel bad for them, bad for Alan Shearer and bad for the club. The new manager has a big job but it could be a great job."

Of course Solano knows all about great jobs. In his eyes he has the greatest of them all. Premiership football has provided him with wealth beyond his wildest dreams but money is only the half of it.

"When I first arrived in Newcastle I didn't speak a word of English," he explained. "Nothing. It was very strange. In Peru if you don't go to a private school then learning a foreign language isn't an option.

"Nobody pushes you to speak English and nobody believes they will need English. People don't ever expect to leave the poorer parts of Peru and so they think Spanish is all they need. But I know how important it is. English is the first language of the world.

"When I moved here I saw it as a great opportunity to learn another language. It was important for me to be able to express my thanks when people helped me - just simple things like that made life a lot easier. Now I find Geordie easy. It was really difficult when I lived in Birmingham for 18 months - that accent is impossible to understand. Geordie is far simpler.

"You never know when a skill like English will be useful. After I retire as a player I want to be a coach and a manager. These days all the top clubs have players from all over the world but if I can speak Spanish and English that will give me an advantage over some others. One of my targets is to manage in Europe one day."

For Solano football, as in life, is all about setting and attaining new targets. If Maradona nurtured his friend's latent ambition, then his own father sowed the seeds more than 20 years ago. "My dad had different targets in life," added Solano.

"His only ambition was to provide food for his family every day and he did that. He joined the Navy to make sure we had a good wage coming in. It wasn't an easy life but he wanted more for his family. My father couldn't afford to buy me many toys. I was the youngest of seven children. It was difficult for him.

"Now kids have remote control cars, planes, PlayStations and all from a very young age. Football doesn't come into it unless it's on a video game.

"For me football was everything. The best thing me and my friends could find was a proper football and we played with it until it burst or was lost. I never stopped kicking a ball.

"My four-year-old son Mattias isn't impressed by football that much. He gets a lot of new toys which are more exciting than an old football.

"That's the difference between me and my son - we come from different backgrounds, different economic situations and different times," Solano said. "But I hope, one day, we will share the same values."

Beautiful game, beautiful music: Football's instrumentalists

* PELE & GARRINCHA (Former Brazilian strikers) Garrincha played the Brazilian cavaquinho guitar and taught Pele to play during the 1958 and 1962 World Cups.

* ANTON FERDINAND (West Ham defender) A drummer, singer and aspiring pianist, he could have been Peckham's answer to Ray Charles had he not become a West Ham regular.

* GIANFRANCO ZOLA (Former Chelsea striker) While Frank Lampard and co spent their afternoons in Ladbrokes, Zola simply went home and played the piano.

* ALEXI LALAS (Former US defender) Guitarist. Recorded three albums with The Gypsies and opened for Hootie and the Blowfish on tour.

* JOHN WELSH (Hull City midfielder) A violinist at school, Welsh could have been the next Nigel Kennedy, never mind the next Steven Gerrard.

* DION DUBLIN (Celtic defender) A fine saxophonist - with Nolberto Solano on trumpet, the Aston Villa side of 2003 had a mean brass section.

* FRANK CLARK (Former Nott'm Forest manager) The banjo and guitar playing gaffer famously binned Brian Clough's Sinatra collection after replacing him at Forest.

* GARY SPEED (Current Bolton midfielder) A talented guitarist, Solano's former team-mate has become the football equivalent to the road-weary Bob Dylan.

Padraic Halpin