There are some players who are almost universally well-liked. Even if they are playing for your bitter rivals or smashing a 40-yard screamer past your goalkeeper, one somehow cannot muster up any genuine dislike for them. Newcastle United’s former right sided midfielder Nolberto Solano is one of those players. An infectiously positive, ambitious and determined character, he spent 8 years at Newcastle, and has described himself as an ‘adopted Geordie’.
Solano was born in the Peruvian seaport city of Callao, less than 10 miles west of the countries capital city of Lima. The youngest of seven children, Nolberto’s father was part of Peru’s Navy. Like so many South American footballers, Solano grew up in a poor family living in an unforgiving Peruvian favela. There was little money for toys, so Solano and his friends would spend their time playing football.
Nolberto grew up in what were halcyon days for the Peruvian national team. Despite a population of more than 30 million, Peru haven’t enjoyed the success or international competitiveness of their near neighbours such as Brazil and Chile. They reached their first World Cup finals since 1930 four years before Solano was born, and qualified in both 1978 and 1982, when he was aged 4 and 8 respectively.
Solano left school at 14, but was already showing signs of being a promising footballer. So too were his team mates, and together they enjoyed success at youth level. When he turned 17, he signed professional forms with Sporting Cristal, the third most successful club in Peru. He made his debut at 17, as well as his first transfer – to Deportivo Municipal – but he was back at Cristal within 12 months of the move.
He was clearly a talent, and in 1994, the same year that he won his first league title with Sporting Cristal, Solano was capped by Peru for the first time. He was only 18, but he had a handful of his Cristal team mates to keep him company in the national team. The club had managed to assemble a strong squad, and by 1996, Solano and Sporting Cristal had won three consecutive national titles. In his final season with the club, Cristal reached the final of the Copa Libertadores, where they suffered a narrow defeat to Cruzeiro of Brazil.
It was a sign of his growing reputation in South America that Solano’s 1997 move was to Argentine giants Boca Juniors. Playing at La Bombonera would be an experience for any player, but it was an especially significant one for Solano, as Diego Maradona had come out of retirement to join Boca in 1995. The two players spent only a single season as team mates, but became good friends, with El Diego describing Solano as his favourite player at the time and nicknaming him the ‘Maestro’.
It was from Boca Juniors that Solano made his near £2.5 million switch to St. James’ Park, where he would spend the next six years. Kenny Dalglish was the Newcastle manager at that time, and it was seen as an ambitious and exciting swoop by the Geordie faithful, although Dalglish would be sent packing just 10 days after Solano’s arrival. Ruud Gullit was his replacement, and Solano endeared himself to supporters in his debut season with goals against the likes of Liverpool, Manchester United and Leeds.
His ability when it came to hitting a dead ball is quite possibly what he is best remembered for in England. Solano scored more than 100 goals over the course of his career, and 48 for Newcastle alone. A hard working wide man with impressive stamina, Solano had an unusual technique at times, but his long, mazy runs were often highly effective. His crossing and set piece skills attracted the most attention though. Solano has an impressive highlights reel of long range efforts, and he provided a total of 62 assists during his time in the Premier League. That is the 18th most since the division was renamed in 1992, ahead of players like Cantona, Scholes and Pires. No player assisted Alan Shearer more times in the Premier League either, with the ‘Solano to Shearer’ combination being the fifth most prolific in the Premier League era.
Solano left Newcastle to join Aston Villa for £1.5 million in January 2004, following a fallout with manager Bobby Robson, but he couldn’t resist a return to Tyneside two years later. Into his 30’s by this time, Solano often deputised at right-back due to injuries to Stephen Carr in his second stint with the club. He said his final goodbye’s to the people of Newcastle in 2007, moving to West Ham to be closer to his family, who were living in London at that time.
Solano looked to have left the English game for good back in 2008, joining Greek outfit Larissa, followed by Peru’s most successful club Universitario, but he was lured back by Nigel Pearson in 2010. Pearson had coached Solano at St James’ Park, and the two reunited at both Leicester City and Hull City. During their time together in East Yorkshire, a 36-year-old Solano was really more of a utility player. However, his friend, apparently named ‘Henry’, who travelled everywhere with the match day squad; putting out cones, encouraging the Tigers fans and antagonising the opposition supporters, made him a minor fans favourite.
Solano played his last game in 2012 for Hartlepool United, and he has since had brief stints managing Peruvian clubs Universitario and Jose Galvez, as well as the short-lived semi-professional Canadian outfit Internacional de Toronto, who both came into existence and ceased to exist within the calendar year of 2014. Aged 43, Solano is currently the first team coach with the Peruvian national team, who successfully qualified for the 2018 World Cup, the countries first in 36 years.