Peru taps into Solano's contacts ready for World Cup return
In the 36 years since Peru last played at the World Cup so much has changed in football.
"There is no hiding anymore," Peru assistant coach Nolberto Solano said in an interview with The Associated Press. "There are no more secrets."
That works both ways.
It will be harder for the Peruvians to spring a surprise on opponents who can glean tactical nuances from combing through footage. But it is easier than ever before to keep tabs on their group-stage rivals in Russia. Especially when Peru can turn to Solano to call in favors from Newcastle, the English Premier League club where he spent most of his playing career.
A recent trip back to northeast England allowed Solano to tap into the coaching wisdom of manager Rafa Benitez and his insight on players from Peru's Group C opponents: Australia, Denmark and France.
"It's good to hear from a manager who can give you tips and advice," Solano said. "He is watching the players closer. He has a lot of experience."
The Spaniard, who previously coached Liverpool and Real Madrid, is feeding intel back to Solano as the World Cup looms.
Benitez has a good vantage point: Most teams at the World Cup feature players from the English leagues. In Peru's group that includes France midfielder Paul Pogba (Manchester United), Tottenham playmaker Christian Eriksen (Denmark) and Brighton goalkeeper Mathew Ryan (Australia).
Peru's toughest game at its fifth World Cup is the second game in Group C in Yekaterinburg against 2016 European Championship finalist France, which can deploy Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann up front.
"It's a really great-paced team," Solano said, "and strong in the middle with (Blaise) Matuidi, Pogba. (N'Golo) Kante. All of them very physical. So we need to make sure we don't give any space to the lads because they will kill you."
The first blow to Peru's World Cup prospects could be inflicted before the tournament begins, by the world sports court.
The fate of Paolo Guerrero is in the hands of the Court of Arbitration for Sport. The Peru captain was initially hit with a year-long doping ban after testing positive for cocaine metabolites at a World Cup qualifier in October. A World Cup reprieve came when Guerrero succeeded in halving the FIFA punishment on appeal but the World Anti-Doping Agency called on CAS to lengthen the striker's exclusion from football to two years.
"He is a special player," Solano said. "We have a very young squad. He is a reference. He is a leader. He is our best striker. He is our main guy. He is very important for us."
Peru has built the team around its all-time top scorer just as Newcastle did in Solano's days with Alan Shearer as the target man.
"He's a typical No. 9 like a Shearer," Solano said, resorting often to English terminology. "Our gaffer (coach) loves to play the game from the back."
The first Peruvian to play in the Premier League, Solano gained cult status in northeast England during two spells at Newcastle: 1998-2004, which included a spell in the Champions League, and 2005-08. After flitting between club management jobs in his homeland, the 43-year-old Solano is finding his feet in the national team setup under coach Ricardo Gareca.
Fortunately for Solano, he is working under a Peruvian federation not taking kneejerk decisions for once. When four of the opening six South American qualifiers were lost, it looked like Peru would be missing out on another World Cup and the coaching staff would be replaced.
"The federation was strong to keep the manager," Solano said. "It never happened before, even when I was a player there, always after losing three or four matches you sack the manager. But this time I think everyone believes in Ricardo Gareca as our head coach."
Peru turned it around and finished above South American champion Chile in the qualifying standings to secure a playoff. Victory against New Zealand over two legs sent Peru to its first World Cup since 1982 — a drought Solano endured as a player for the team.
"Everybody is still very emotional because it happened after so many years," Solano said. "It's been a frustration for people but now people are connecting again in football. That will help a lot in our country ... I hope this World Cup will give a big push for all the nation, for all the clubs."
It's a platform too, for Solano to advance his coaching career. The World Cup will be another chance to gain knowledge. Having also played for Aston Villa and West Ham, Solano inevitably draws inspiration from managers in England.
"I could go the easy way," Solano said. "Everyone goes to follow (Manchester City's Pep) Guardiola because it's pretty football everyone would wish to play. But in general I have always been a big fan of Arsene Wenger. I know probably many people would disagree with me."
With Wenger preparing to leave Arsenal after 22 years it is unlikely Solano will get to share a touchline with the Frenchman. The target, eventually, for Solano is a return to the Premier League.
Just like Peru's long wait to return to the World Cup, Solano is patient when it comes to the second phase of his football career in the dugout after retiring from playing in 2011. The World Cup will be a learning experience for both the team and the assistant coach who scored 20 times in 95 appearances from 1994 to 2009.
"It takes time because you still think a little bit as a player," Solano said. "The key is you have to leave your past as a player behind. You have to train. You have to understand your players and they have to learn from you. ... In football nobody has got the answers. You try your best."
Rob Harris is at www.twitter.com/RobHarris and www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports