Marcos Senna / the IPE of Naturalized Footballers

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 7/01/2008 12:57:00 AM
Let's face it: given the immigration backlash in many parts of Europe amidst "look what these wretched foreigners are doing to our country"-style scapegoating, it's far from easy to become citizens of any number of Western European states. However, there is some wiggle room for those whose skills are very much in demand--especially talented footballers. The recent victory of Spain in Euro 2008--its first victory in a major international tournament in 44 years--is in large part due to the sterling efforts of the superlative holding midfielder Marcos Senna. A holding midfielder is a defensively-tasked player positioned between the backs and the midfielders. Like Senna, the best of them know how to take possession away from attacking players on defence and feed the other midfielders on offence with accurate passing. To top things off, he's also a scoring threat from long distance. At the moment, Marcos Senna is among the world's best at his position.

As the Belfast Telegraph notes below, Senna represents a growing trend of somewhat hasty naturalizations that European national teams are undertaking to fill in talent gaps in their national sides. Unsurprisingly, the main provider of exported footballing talent is Senna's homeland, Brazil. Perhaps there is no "foot drain" in the Brazilian case, but privileging footballers in the immgration queue does raise serious questions about the fairness of Western European immigration policies. Even at Euro 2008, joga bonito lives on:

For the man keeping [Juventus midfielder Xabi] Alonso out of Luis Aragones' side is Brazilian. Marcos Antonio Senna da Silva, aka Marcos Senna, took Spanish citizenship shortly before the 2006 World Cup but, apart from working in Spain, has no connection with the country. Initially there was some disquiet but Senna's genial personality and commanding performances have dispelled any criticism. In the recent Euro 2008 quarter-final he prevented Italy getting any meaningful service to Luca Toni, then dispatched a penalty in the shoot-out. In the semi-final he suffocated Andrei Arshavin, the gifted playmaker who was supposed to lead Russia to the final...

"Not everyone was in favour at first but there was no real outcry," said Graham Hunter, a Barcelona-based journalist. "In taking Spanish nationality Senna is part of a tradition that goes back through another Brazilian, Donato, to Alfredo di Stefano [who played for Argentina before playing for Spain]..."

It may be slightly embarrassing that the key player in the European Championship is South American but as Josef Hickersberger, the Austrian coach, said after Poland's Brazilian, Roger Guerreiro, had scored against his men: "All teams are trying to bring in players and to naturalise players in order to strengthen their own national teams. It is legitimate. These are possibilities which are open to every team according to the statutes."

Hickersberger also mentioned Eduardo, the Arsenal striker who would have led Croatia's attack but for injury. He could have mentioned Senna; Turkey's Mehmet (Marco) Aurelio; Portugal's Pepe and Deco, who, like their coach, Luiz Felipe Scolari, were born and bred in Brazil; or Germany's Kevin Kuranyi – who at least does have a half-German father.

That Kuranyi could instead have played for Hungary (his father's other antecedent), Panama (his mother's nationality) or Brazil (he was born in Rio de Janeiro) suggests Fifa's rules are flexible enough. Jack Charlton's Republic of Ireland reached a succession of tournaments in part because of keen exploitation of the "granny rule".

Recently, however, there has been a new development, one which owes something to globalisation and much to expediency. Coaches and governments have realised that while countries are not allowed to use the transfer market to strengthen teams, they can use helpful immigration laws.

Since Brazil is the greatest producer of football talent in the world it follows that footballers most likely to be naturalised are from Brazil. Those playing at Euro 2008 are just the most visible tip of a ball-juggling mountain. There are Brazilians playing for Bosnia, Bulgaria and Hungary. Azerbaijan have four Brazilians playing for them – the recent spell as coach of Brazil's 1970 World Cup captain, Carlos Alberto Torres, is undoubtedly a factor. Brazilians have been competing for Tunisia and Lebanon and for Japan and Qatar.

What these players offer was encapsulated by Leo Beenhakker, Poland's coach, who pushed for Guerreiro's naturalisation in time for this tournament. "He is great," the Dutchman said. "He's amazing, he's fantastic. He sees solutions and makes choices on the field that are, well, it's Brazilian. I cannot explain it in any other way."

Guerreiro's Polishness only goes so far. When he collected a man-of-the-match award after scoring against Austria, the honours were done in Spanish – no Portuguese speakers were available. Roger – as he is known locally – is unlikely to have learnt much Polish since 2006, when he left his native country to sign for Legia Warsaw.

Now he is, in Fabio Capello's phrase, Poland's "fantasy" player; then he was, said Tim Vickery, a Rio-based football analyst, "a nondescript left-back". Vickery, who watched Guerreiro playing for Flamengo and Corinthians, added: "Now he is an attacking midfielder full of ideas and confidence. He did none of that here but if a Brazilian who moves to Europe can cope with the cultural change they get far more respect, because they have that natural ability, than they did at home. Some shine with that confidence."

That appears to have been the case with Deco, whose adoption of Portuguese nationality met with considerable opposition in Portugal at the time, and Senna. While not fitting the archetypal ball-juggling image of a Brazilian, Senna's easy command of the ball, confidence in possession and explosive shooting mark him out as a product of the joga bonito...

With globalisation the blurring of national allegiances is only going to increase, especially given the value of an EU passport to players from outside the union. Had the Dutch government been more amenable Chelsea's Salomon Kalou, for example, then playing at Feyenoord, would have played for the Netherlands against an Ivory Coast team which featured his elder brother, Bonaventure, at the last World Cup. Senna is cousin to Marcos Assuncao, a former Brazilian international.

They will never play against each other at international level because Assuncao, who played for Santos and Roma, won 11 caps for Brazil between the 1998 and 2002 World Cups before being dropped after one poor game. Such is the depth of talent, he was never recalled. That is why Senna, who has lost and regained his place with Spain, and now stands on the cusp of winning the most precious medal outside the World Cup, will feel tonight that he has made the right choice of passport.