Thursday 16 June 2016, 19:55

Solano: Peru can do a Leicester City

"You suffer so much more on the bench than you ever do on the pitch,” Peruvian legend Nolberto Solano with a humble chuckle. “You can’t change anything when the game is on and you’re there on the sideline as a coach. It’s like torture!”

Solano was the face of Peruvian football for well over a decade through the mid-1990s and early 2000s. He was an ambassador on foreign pitches and a hero in the white shirt and red sash of his beloved Peru. His sumptuous set-pieces and beguiling wing-play made him an icon at home and a hero on fields as faraway as London and Newcastle, where he became the first Peruvian to play in the English Premier League. Now, as assistant coach to Ricardo Gareca, Solano is a link to the past for a Peruvian team made up of a handful of young guns and scrappy veterans, a team punching way above their weight at the Copa America Centenario.

“I still have a passion for the game and for my country,” he said, just days after a slim win over Brazil put Peru into the quarter-finals. “To coach is the only way to stay in it.” By Solano’s own admission “Peru haven’t always been the best at international level over the last 30 years,” but what they’ve achieved so far on US soil has the people back home buzzing.

Consistency at last After finishing third at last year’s Copa America, Peru have found the kind of consistency that proved elusive during Solano’s nearly 100-cap career. A man of generous spirit, Nobby, now 41, couldn’t be more pleased. “Half of this team were in the under-20s just three years ago,” he said, his voice soft and with a genuine affection for this unlikely side that have shocked the competition. “The young ones are taking the opportunity to bring Peru’s football higher. No one believed we could beat Brazil, but we did. They never gave up and they achieved something great.”

One link from Solano’s playing days to the current team is captain Paolo Guerrero. The 32 year-old striker recently broke the legendary Teofilo Nene Cubillas’ record to become Peru’s all-time top scorer. Combative and clinical, Guerrero’s qualities aren’t lost on Solano. “I had the pleasure to play with him in the national team,” he said. “In every team you need a guy like this, a guy with experience and the knowledge of many years. He’s played in the big leagues. In Germany. In Brazil he’s been a star for a lot of years, which is rare for a Peruvian player. You can see the strength he brings to this team. We need him.”

Another man Solano speaks of with total respect is his boss: head coach Ricardo Gareca. The Argentina native led Peru to third place in last year’s Copa America and, to many, he seems like the savior of Peru’s football, the man to bring them back to the glory days of the 1970s when they were regulars at the World Cup and a team to be feared from the New World. “Gareca gives so much confidence to the players,” Solano said, focusing on his organisational skills. “He has faith in the local players and he’s built a system that everyone accepts and works to bring about. We came to the USA 20 days early to work on being organised and that’s just what we’ve done.”

Echo from the past Solano’s role is somewhere between coach and mentor. The young players look to him as both an icon and a beloved uncle. They benefit from his experience having played at the top level for nearly two decades. “I’m Peruvian, so these guys they know me,” he said. "I’m the guy they can come to, with respect. I try to give them the benefit of my experience, my years in the national team. I try to pass on some confidence that maybe they don’t have yet.”

When asked to compare the current side to those he played in, or even those that came before his time, the former Newcastle United hero prefers to be diplomatic. “It’s hard to compare teams that way. The teams I played in were different than this one and the ones before that were different still,” he said. “But this team is going in the right direction. You can see that as plain as day.”

Up next for Peru is a date with tournament favorites Colombia. It’s a team chock-full of household names and global stars like James Rodriguez and Juan Cuadrado. “We will suffer,” he admitted with a laugh. “From the beginning to the end we’re going to suffer. We just need to find the next level.

“We have to believe,” he said, his mind turning to those English shores where he brought spicy South American flavor for so many years. He thinks of the new standard of underdog inspiration, before concluding the conversation. “Colombia have so much talent, so many stars, but maybe we can do a Leicester City and make a shock once more.”