Playing football is simple,” Johan Cruyff once proclaimed. “But playing simple football is the hardest thing there is.” It’s a sentiment that clearly echoed in the mind of a certain Marcos Senna when he took to the pitch. “My style is simple and objective,” he said. “I don’t like when players try to do easy things in a complicated way.”
The Brazil-born midfielder never donned the yellow of the Seleção, instead just the yellow of Villarreal, for 11 reliable years. Imperious and omnipresent, he played with a subtlety that often went unnoticed, but not by those who valued his contribution.
Senna was born in São Paulo, though it was with Spain that he would find his footballing calling. His career was, in a way, lopsided, unconventional from the beginning. Where most talented young players emerge and stand out whilst still in their youth, Senna remained a relative unknown in his homeland until his mid-20s. A late bloomer, to say the least.
It seemed that Senna, unassuming and laid back, had been almost ignored. He was never one to draw attention to himself; a quiet, softly-spoken individual whose playing style echoed that of his personality. Senna did the unglamorous work, but he did it impeccably.
There was nothing eccentric about this holding midfielder, nothing spectacular. Perhaps that’s why it appeared to require the most astute of observers to finally take notice. Wearing glasses, no flashily expensive clothing or jewellery, and speaking in a hushed tone bordering on a whisper, Senna made a refreshing change from some of his more exuberant counterparts. It wasn’t until his early 30s that he was truly acknowledged; bizarrely, he was something of a revelation as he approached the latter stages of his career.
Before that, though, Senna spent the early years of his career in the lower divisions of Brazil, hoping for a break. He got it in 1999, a move to Corinthians that soon brought with it success. He was part of the side that won the Série A and Campeonato Paulista, but his early years were a far cry from the security and longevity that would come later. Senna moved on to Juventude, then São Caetano. It was with the latter that his performances caught the eye of an up and coming club in Spain, an hour to the north of Valencia.
Senna’s move to Villarreal in 2002 was unheralded, a €600,000 signing that hardly registered amongst the plethora of La Liga’s more reputable arrivals. In hindsight, it was shrewd business; the modest fee would be repaid tenfold. But there was undeniably an element of luck that Villarreal came to sign Senna at all.
AS journalist, Javi Mata, revealed that the Yellow Submarine had originally planned to bring in a different, more in-demand Brazilian midfielder. “Villarreal originally wanted to sign Gilberto Silva,” Mata said. “The deal had been agreed but then Emerson – at Real Madrid – got injured and this left Brazil with just one defensive midfielder for the 2002 World Cup. Gilberto Silva played every game and his performances grabbed the attention of Arsenal and he went there instead.”
Senna had offers from Russia, but a move to Spain proved a more attractive proposition. “Spain’s is a more beautiful football than Brazil’s,” he said, controversially. But for two years, he was used sparingly at Villarreal, hindered by repetitive knee injuries. He later recalled how a member of the club’s hierarchy had suggested that his unfortunate fitness issues were the result of a curse.
“When I first signed for Villarreal I chose the number 19 for the back of my shirt,” Senna told Graham Hunter in his book Spain: The Inside Story of La Roja’s Historic Treble. “One of the club directors came to me and told me: ‘That’s an unlucky number around here, perhaps you’d better think again.’ But I liked the number and told him I wasn’t superstitious like that.
“Then in the January of my first season I did really bad ligament damage to my knee against Betis, was out for several months, and the director came to me again. I ignored him, got back to playing and immediately was injured in the knee again. This time he insisted that I was suffering the jinx of the number and although I stopped and thought about it, I made a point of not giving in to some sort of made-up hoodoo.”
Senna didn’t give in, and the incessant injuries didn’t persist. He had demonstrated his commendable resilience after what was a difficult start to life in Europe, away from his family, at a higher level of football. Third and second-placed finishes would follow in La Liga, a fully fit Senna becoming the ideologue of an inherently stylish Villarreal side.
Manuel Pellegrini’s appointment was vital for Senna. The Chilean introduced a possession-based game, and the newly-invigorated midfield general thrived. Senna expertly shielded the defence, marshalling in front of the centre backs, but not in the traditionally physical sense. At five foot eight inches, he was not particularly imposing, although he had an air of assurance, a command of his area of the pitch that few dared to dispute.
Still, Senna remained unsung despite his notable influence at Villarreal. Even when they faced Arsenal in the semi-final of the Champions League in 2006, a significant landmark for the club, Senna was not on the radar of many. Instead, Juan Román Riquelme and Diego Forlán, the dynamic attacking duo, were at the forefront of attention, while Senna silently dictated.
Villarreal and Senna may have lost out against Arsenal, but it felt like the beginning of something. A team from a town whose entire population could fit inside the Emirates Stadium had ascended to the top of the European game and were now, albeit as underdogs, able to compete against the footballing elite.
Senna’s reputation had slowly grown alongside the club’s. In 2006, after his domineering displays in the middle for Villarreal, Manchester United came calling, but he turned down the offer of a move to Old Trafford; El Submarino Amarillo had clearly made an indelible impression. “I won’t pretend I didn’t study the offer carefully: it was Man United,” he said. “But Villarreal made me feel wanted and I don’t regret staying.”
In the same year – a career defining one – Senna qualified for a Spanish passport. He had adopted a new nationality, taken to a country in which he was welcomed, and when Luis Aragonés called him up to the Spanish national team, he had little hesitation in accepting. “I always knew the Brazil team was distant and after I was naturalised and played a game for Spain I totally forgot about it,” Senna said. “I am privileged. For Brazil, where could I play?”
There had appeared no indication that a place in the Seleção squad was imminent. Senna, though, had shown on numerous occasions that he had a unique set of skills. The nucleus of a well-functioning Villarreal side, Aragonés was keen to utilise Senna in a similar way amongst the surplus of technically gifted pass-masters in the Spain squad.
Some cynically viewed Senna’s selection as an attempt from Aragonés to diffuse some of the tension amidst accusations of racism. As the only black player in Spain’s team, his inclusion was seen as a strategy to end the widespread criticism that had come Aragonés’ way when he labelled Thierry Henry “a black shit” during a training session.
Senna vehemently denied those claims, as he repeatedly did when asked whether Spanish football had an inherent issue with racism. “He is not racist,” he said. “Aragonés is a spectacular person. He helped a lot bringing me to the Spain team, and the fact people thought he was racist was minimised by the fact he called me. I see the way he treats me and how he likes me.”
Regardless of the controversy, Senna made his international debut in March 2006, and was a part of the squad that went to Germany for the World Cup. Spain reached the last 16, disappointingly eliminated by France, and Senna admitted that “in 2006 I felt a little bit – how shall I put this – lost”.
True integration would take time. This was an alien experience for Senna, taking his first steps into international football at the age of 29. After Germany, he lost his place to David Albelda, but then won it back ahead of the 2008 European Championship. In the build-up to the tournament in Austria and Switzerland, Senna had been appointed captain at Villarreal and led his side to an astonishing second-placed finish, ahead of Barcelona.
Riquelme and Forlán had gone, as had previous captain Quique Álvarez, so Senna stepped up. And he would soon become equally indispensable for Spain. “At Euro 2008 I felt as much part of it as anyone,” he said. “I felt Spanish. I owe Spain everything. At first I was nervous, but everyone treated me brilliantly and Luis Aragonés was fundamental. I didn’t even think about the Brazilian team. The only team in my head is Spain.”
At Euro 2008, Senna could conceivably have been named the player of the tournament. He wasn’t, but many claimed he should have been. Throughout La Roja’s winning campaign, the one that began their period of domination, Senna protected a defence that some considered vulnerable, denied his opposition space, recycled possession with unerring accuracy and instigated the process of Spain’s carousel-like passing moves with such efficiency that it seemed almost mechanical.
“He gives us the balance we need and does a dirty job,” said David Silva. “He does a fantastic job for us and is a wonderful guy,” added goalkeeper Iker Casillas. “We know his importance.” By now, everyone knew his importance – all but the least observant, anyway. Senna’s patience had been vindicated; by the age of 32, he had finally earned widespread recognition. Not that it was the most important thing to him.
Senna called himself “an athlete of Christ”, devoutly religious and teetotal. “The lads like to wind me up,” he revealed ahead of Spain’s Euro 2008 final against Germany. “They say to me, ‘Marcos, if we win the Euro we are going to make you stay out until you vomit’.”
Senna’s consistency continued at club level, as did his loyalty to Villarreal. When he and his teammates met Arsenal again in the Champions League, this time the quarter-final of 2009, Senna stressed that the trophy was there to be won. “We can win the Champions League,” he insisted. They didn’t; Arsenal again got the better of the Spaniards, but Senna’s optimism never diminished.
Senna always viewed his career positively given his humble beginnings. From the poverty of Jardim Rincão, the neighbourhood where he grew up, to the start of an unexpectedly high-profile career in the lower reaches of Brazilian football, he took nothing for granted. His father worked to ensure his son could play football, and then persuaded him to carry on when he thought about stopping.
“Coming from humble origins gave me strong values,” Senna said. “It made me want to succeed and appreciate my achievements even more. I had an aim to become a professional footballer – the best that I could be – and I achieved all my aims. I am proud of all my achievements.”
His achievements were many, though the possibility of winning the World Cup, a career-long aspiration, was cruelly taken away in 2010. Had he been selected to go to South Africa by Vicente del Bosque, a dream would have become reality. But at the age of 34, and with the emergence of Sergio Busquets at Barcelona, he was deemed an expendable remnant of the side that had succeeded so impressively two years earlier.
It was harsh, if understandable. Senna had suffered from injuries at Villarreal in the season prior to the World Cup, and his side had regressed slightly to a seventh-placed finish. Perhaps del Bosque had heard him joke about being “pissed off” when asked to run after his teammates had made a mistake.
Senna remained at Villarreal until 2013, when he departed after 11 seasons to NASL club New York Cosmos. He finished his career with two years in America, but it was the yellow of Villarreal that defined the Brazilian. “He’s a key man in the recent history of Villarreal – a great captain,” said journalist Xavi Sidro. “He’s a footballer that represents the evolution of the club and who played a key part in its greatest achievements. He was an incredible player and an even better person.”
His contribution to Villarreal as a player was invaluable, and he would return in 2016 as an ambassador, the bond between the midfielder and the club seemingly inseparable. He has also turned his hand to philanthropy, setting up the Marcos Senna Foundation, which aims to help disadvantaged communities in Brazil.
Typically altruistic, Senna has worked towards helping youngsters of a similar background to that of his own, replicate his achievements. It’s unlikely, however, that any of them will have a career quite as unique, as strangely non-linear, or as unconventionally successful as Senna’s.
By Callum Rice-Coates @callumrc96