Few would dispute that Peru's Nolberto Solano is a true ambassador for his country. Deferential, diligent and supremely talented, El Ñol has joined the pantheon of Peruvian greats thanks to his sterling displays and superb goals in Argentina, England and Greece. Now, back playing in his homeland with Universitario, this exquisite talent is gearing up for two vital 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ qualifiers that could make or break Peru's South African ambitions: the clásico del Pacífico with Chile and a perilous trip to Brazil.
Just hours before the first of these gets underway, the 34-year-old made time for an exclusive chat with FIFA.com.
FIFA.com: How does it feel to be back playing in Peru again?
Nolberto Solano: I'm thrilled about it. I'd been abroad for a long time and the decision to return was the culmination of many things: nostalgia for my homeland and the chance to be near my family and friends again, as was the opportunity to play for a great team like Universitario. It's only when you actually join this club that you realise how great it is, what with the fans and all they have helped the club achieve. It really has been transformed.
It's not just Universitario fans who were happy to see you back, but all of Peru it seems. Not long ago a great many of your compatriots chose you as the world's best free-kick taker in a FIFA.com poll.
That's because they like me and we're compatriots (laughs)! Seriously though, it's always nice to have your work recognised. In coming here I accepted a very tough challenge, and so I'm proud of that recognition. However, that free kick thing is more anecdotal than anything. There are many other great strikers of the ball, like Juninho Pernambucano, Roman [Riquelme], David Beckham, etc.
Do you think it's possible to transfer that passion and fever to the national team?
I certainly hope so. This double header will be vital to our chances. We start with the clásico against Chile, which for us is like Brazil-Argentina. The stadium will be packed and expectations very high, so we'll need to give absolutely everything and do something special. Having said that, we'll need to keep a cool head and not get distracted or carried away by the atmosphere.
And for the game itself?
We cannot let Chile dictate the pace, as they're a great team with an excellent coach. They play very well away from home and fully capitalise on any spaces you leave them. So we'll have to be smart, keep our composure and wait for the right moment to attack.
Are there any Chilean players that particularly stand out for you?
Several. Mark Gonzalez, for example. He's very effective down the left and lightning quick. However, with Chile it's more about the group than the individual. That's becoming the norm now in world football; big-name players by themselves will no longer win it for you.
What message would you give to the Peruvian faithful?
They don't need any message in particular. The atmosphere at the game are incredible, with the country grinding to a halt every time we play. Therefore I hope everyone gets completely behind the team at the stadium but also keep their calm. We'll do our bit on the pitch.
After Chile, you face quite a daunting trip to Brazil.
That's right. With these two games we need to beat Chile and then try for an upset in Brazil. A draw there would be a very good result for us if we're realistic.
Brazil haven't been as assured at home recently as usual.
That's true, they change when they are playing World Cup qualifiers. I saw them recently against Italy and they were spectacular, but back here their performances haven't been quite as good. That said, you can't ignore their individual strengths. The gap between them and other teams may have decreased, but they're still an incredible side. If you give them space, they'll run rings around you samba style (laughs). Then there's no stopping them.
So what will Peru have to do to get a result there?
Play as a team, match them for running and keep our focus for 90 minutes. We need to get four points from these two games. That's our only option if we want to keep our qualification hopes alive.
Why do you think the national team struggles so much to get the best out of its players?
Well you have to be realistic about it. At present we only have five or six players in the world's top leagues. Most other teams have 15 or 16, and that's quite a difference. Added to that we decided we could do without several players for other motives (a reference to the internationals suspended by the Peruvian FA for disciplinary reasons). However, we must have confidence in the youngsters we have in the squad, and in their desire and ambition.
What would it mean to you to reach the finals in South Africa at this stage in your career?
It would mean everything, which is why I'm trying so hard. I'm well aware this will be my last chance to play in a World Cup, so that's why I'm here with the team. Even though pessimism often prevails among the media and some of the public, I'm an optimist. If it's meant to be then it will happen. If not, then I'll try to make up for it as a coach.
So you hope to stay involved in the game when you hang up your boots?
Of course. I love football and can't imagine leaving the game when I stop playing. I'll stay involved through coaching for sure.