Nolberto Solano sat in the middle of the bar, leaned into a conversation with friends. A short but feisty man joked, alternating rapidly between Spanish and English. The man talked, Solano listened.
The venue was near to empty with only a handful of people scattered all over the place, minding their own business. Shiny effigies of Inca gods alongside an impressive collection of Peruvian ornaments covered the walls, reflecting opaque party lights that left the room in semi-darkness.
When the company finally noticed me, the feisty man approached with a mischievous grin. “Bienvenido, welcome to Rumba – the only true Latin American Restobar in Newcastle”, he said while performing an intricate bow. His exuberant mannerism made Solano and his friends a mere backdrop of the scene. But Solano didn’t mind.
He had been inconspicuous most of the evening, leaving center stage to his extroverted friend. Except now, as Hector Lavoe’s salsa evergreen “Periódico de Ayer” (which translates as “Yesterday’s Newspaper”) opened up the dance floor, his facial features brightened.
“May I?“, the football icon said to a woman next to me and a few moments later she twirled past the counter, the hem of her dress spiralling flirtatiously around her legs. After the dance he paid my first round. He smiled, observing the dancing crowd who had immersed in some catchy beats.
I saw contentment in a man who, at forty-something-years-old, had already achieved so much that he could now relax, lean back and enjoy other people’s experiences. When asked how he manages to keep such a low profile, he shook his head.
“I’m, just a guy who’s good at kicking a ball”, the Newcastle United legend said. His dark eyes were cast down as he stared at his shoes like a shy shoolboy. Indeed, no one seemed to pay any special attention to one more dancer.
“Being a footballer doesn’t make you more important than any other line of work”, he added, a man clearly humbled by a life of early hardship.
In Latin-America his story of struggle, being the youngest of seven children and playing football in the streets of Callao, is relatable for the public. The fact that Solano’s success-story actually produced a polite human being with a down-to-Earth manner, is yet another reason for Peruvians to adore their “Ñol”, who had already trotted back to the dance floor after paying a second round.
He signalled I come over, placing two heavy congas in front of me, starting to beat a drum. Once I had picked up the rhythm, he dug out a cheese grater and played it, the sound of a rattle. People cheered and some even joined in. Solano beamed.
“When I lived in Newcastle, Salsa always lifted my heart. No matter how crazy football got, my band and friends always reminded me of who I am.”
After a third round, both dancing to and playing salsa music seemed easier. The guests had clearly enjoyed themselves. Solano grabbed his coat. The night still young, and with more Latin bars to choose from, his infectious grin was hard not to reciprocate. The man was in his element.