The story of Sir Bobby’s failed South American revolution at Newcastle
Newcastle United have long loved a South American import.
From George and Ted Robledo, who won two FA Cups with the Mags in the 1950s, to Mirandinha in the late ’80s and the slightly underwhelming presence of Joelinton and Miguel Almiron now, plenty from the other side of the Atlantic have strutted their stuff at St James’ Park to varying degrees of success.
Yet never has the link between Tyneside and South America been stronger than it was around the turn of the millennium, during Bobby Robson’s wonderful spell in the Newcastle dugout.
Over the two seasons from 1999 to 2001, no fewer than six South Americans pulled on the black and white stripes, when it was rare for most Premier League clubs to have one player from Latin America on their books – any more than that was unheard of.
While the transfer policy was clearly purposeful, its successes were limited. Still, the era provided some entertaining memories to many a Geordie.
There were a few men jointly responsible for selecting and signing the players – Robson himself, as well as assistant Mick Wadsworth and chief scout Charlie Woods – but if we are looking for one person to thank (or blame) for the influx in a general sense, then it must be Nolberto Solano.
Peru international Solano had arrived at Newcastle from Boca Juniors in 1998 for £2.48million – still under Ruud Gullit’s watch – and had taken to the North East like a North Sea gull to the Tyne.
His scrawny build might not have looked tailor-made for English football and, as he told us in 2019, “I had to adapt quickly to the style of play. It wasn’t that easy in the beginning because when I arrived in English football it was very direct.”
But adapt he did. His beautiful right-footed crossing and shooting, combined with a never-say-die attitude quickly made him a terrace hero.
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With money not flowing like it had four years prior, when Newcastle broke the world transfer record to bring Alan Shearer home (but forgot to insure him), going back to South America to locate more bargains like Solano seemed like a risk that could well reap dividends.
The first to arrive, in September 1999, was a Brazilian called Fumaca. Fumaca had spent the previous year touring England, going on trial at various clubs, pitching up at Colchester and Crystal Palace, where Robson’s assistant Wadsworth had worked, as well as Birmingham, Grimsby, Derby, Watford and Barnsley.
Despite not having earned a contract at any of those clubs, Newcastle took him in at Wadsworth’s behest, with predictable results. After his debut, The Guardian likened him to the infamous Ali Dia. “Fumaca has somehow convinced Bobby Robson he is worthy of a trial at Newcastle. Cue memories of Graeme Souness at Southampton, being conned by a man claiming to be George Weah’s cousin.”
Despite being utterly disastrous, the five games Fumaca ended up playing on Tyneside were not enough to deter Newcastle from their Latin kick and, in January 2000, Diego Galivan arrived from Cerro Porteno, the then 19-year-old dubbed ‘Paraguay’s David Beckham’ in the English press.
Gavilan cost £2million, so hopes were high – and in April 2000 he became the first Paraguayan to score in the Premier League. But given his age and inexperience, everyone knew he needed time to acclimatise.
In an interview with Goal, he remembered his home debut against Manchester United at St James’, when he came away with a bloodied shin. “[Jaap Stam] left his boot in and told me, ‘Welcome to the Premier League.’ They [United players] weren’t happy, we were winning 3-0.”
Fortunately, the Magpies’ dressing room was more welcoming than the opposition. Gary Speed took Gavilan under his wing, Solano was there to translate and, when necessary, Bobby Robson employed his famous Spanglish. And a few months later, the South American contingent at Newcastle’s training ground was to double in size.
To add to the talents of Solano and Gavilan, Newcastle signed two Argentines in the summer transfer window in 2000, dodging potential visa issues by finding players entitled to European passports through family ties.
Those two players were Daniel Cordone and Christian Bassedas, both of whom arrived on the recommendation of Newcastle’s man in Argentina, a Buenos Aires-based horseracing vet by the name of Horacio Lorda. The pair had played together at Velez Sarsfield in the club’s golden era, winning league titles and the Copa Libertadores. So, on the face of it, they were clever investments.
Cordone, for whose services Newcastle paid half a million quid, was the more… err… visually striking of the pair. Nicknamed ‘The Wolf’, Cordone sported the dodgiest barnet in Premier League history (and we do not say that lightly), earrings that were soldered onto his earlobes, and dozens of tattoos at a time when they were far from the ubiquitous dressing room sight they are now.
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As Warren Barton told the Newcastle Evening Chronicle in 2020: “When you imagine what an Argentine is going to be like, he was it: the headband, the cut-sleeve t-shirts, his style of football. He had things going on all over the place!”
Bobby Robson was enthused. Upon Cordone signing, the Geordie legend told the BBC: “He’s not going to defend very much for us and he’s not going to jump up against Sol Campbell and get his nose punched in trying to head a ball, and we have to understand that.
“But get the ball to feet, and he’s a bit mustard, and we’ve just got to get the ball to him in certain areas and take advantage of what he can do for us.”
Despite Robson’s positivity on Cordone, Bassedas was, in reality, the superior player. He had 22 Argentina caps by that time and had starred for his club at home, using his intelligence and passing skills to make the No.10 position in the Velez teams of Marcelo Bielsa and Carlos Bianchi his own.
Finally, in October, Newcastle’s South American crew got its fifth addition, as Robson turned on the Spanglish and the charm to convince barrel-chested Chile international Clarence Acuna to sign for Newcastle rather than Manchester United or Parma.
None of them, unfortunately, ever really followed in Solano’s footsteps and translated their quality into solid Premier League performances, at least not consistently.
Cordone was the first to leave, moving to Argentinos Juniors in the summer of 2001 after three goals in 21 appearances in his single campaign. In keeping with his outward appearance, he was banned for three months in 2003 after testing positive for that well-known performance-enhancer marijuana.
Daniel Cordone was razor sharp in the 90’s over in Argentina.
He signed for Newcastle in 2000 and unfortunately scored just two goals in 21 games. pic.twitter.com/mBrsT4djIe
— Football Remind (@FootballRemind) December 9, 2018
Bassedas stayed on Tyneside until January 2002, despite an investigation into the veracity of the Italian passport he used to get his work permit. But he struggled with injury and only made 18 league starts in 18 months.
“Bassedas was just so unlucky,” assistant boss Wadsworth said to the Chronicle. “He got a bad toe injury early on and was never really right after that. It was a shame because he was a terrific player… It always really upset him that it didn’t come off for him as much as he wanted it to. It was really tough for him.”
So tough was it that Bassedas retired as soon as he returned to Argentina, still aged just 30, to open a bar in a leafy Buenos Aires suburb. “I lost my love of football,” he told Pagina12 at the time.
Gavilan, meanwhile, was even less involved than Bassedas or Cordone, making just one Premier League appearance in the 2000-01 season. He was loaned out to Mexican club UAG before moving to Internacional in Brazil, in a deal organised while Freddy Shepherd was in the country trying to complete the signing of Kleberson. A bullet dodged, we can all agree.
Eventually, Gavilan left permanently, spending the rest of a relatively short career in South America.
The longest-lasting and most successful – Solano aside – was without doubt Acuna, who, though never a star, was a solid servant, making over 50 appearances and helping Newcastle to successive top-four finishes before returning to Chile in 2003 to be closer to his family and take care of his mother.
Yet, with Wadsworth having left Newcastle in June 2001, the South American splurge was well over by the time Acuna departed. It did not have the desired results, perhaps, but that does not mean those involved and the fans who watched them didn’t have fun.
Like the other players in the squad at the time, the South American contingent frequented Newcastle’s bars and club, staying out on the Toon until the early hours.
And as Cordone told the Northern Echo during his stay, they were impressed with the Geordie passion. “I was told what to expect at Manchester United but I have been amazed that we got more than 50,000 for games against Derby and Spurs,” he said. “I can’t believe the size of the stadium and the attendances we are getting.”
The lack of success does not mean a lack of legacy, either. Argentine Newcastle legend Jonas Gutierrez told us in 2020 that it was his countrymen who alerted him to the club’s existence. “As a young boy, I used to get up early to watch English football, and it was my dream to play for one of those teams.
“I knew Newcastle because of the film ‘Goal!’ with Santiago Munez, and also because of Daniel Cordone and Christian Bassedas, who were playing there and had been at my team in Argentina, Valez Sarsfield.”
By Joshua Law