by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar July 6th 2008
In the summer of 1976 the magnificent West Indies side led by Clive Lloyd rammed England captain, Tony Greig’s foolish boast that England ‘would make them grovel’ firmly down his throat with the aid of the masterful Sir Viv Richards: Michael Holding and other legends of West Indies cricket.
And while Britain was enjoying West Indian sunshine, if not the cricket, Marcos Antonio Senna da Silva was born in São Paulo. He had to overcome many hardships to achieve his ambitions. The cousin of former Brasilian midfielder Marcos Assunção, Senna showed talent that his father was determined to nurture despite their poverty.
Marcos Senna wasn’t the first black man to play for Spain. Donato Gama da Silva – a central defender and defensive midfielder – has that honour. Donato was also the first black player to play for Spain at a major tournament – the European Championships of 1996. Nor was Senna the first Brasilian-born footballer to represent Spain – Donato again.
Senna wasn’t the second either. Henrique Guedes da Silva (Catanha) won three caps without distinguishing himself before Senna even had Spanish citizenship. And in between this Brasilian-born duo there was the first and so far only Spanish-born black player – an uncompromising defender – Vicente Engonga,1 who represented Spain in the European Championships of 2000.
Yet Marcos Senna achieved a notable landmark for Spanish football and society in his own right. He was the first black player to wear the red and gold of Spain in the World Cup finals, although after impressing in the group stage Spain went out in the last sixteen to eventual finalists France. Nevertheless, on June 29th 2008 Senna set an even greater first – one that will inspire black Spanish footballers for many years to come and deal his biggest blow to racism in football yet.
He became the first black footballer ever to represent Spain in the final of a major tournament – the European Championship – having played a major part in giving the country dubbed perennial under-achievers its first chance in almost quarter of a century to lay that tag to rest once and for all. History beckoned. Senna and Spain were not found wanting.
Silenced by Omission
Senna is currently the highest profile black Spanish footballer. Barcelona’s Cameroonian international Samuel Eto’o has spoken out about racism in Spanish football and rightly so.
Levante’s Ivorian-born midfielder Felix Ettien has never shied away from voicing his opinions either. After the disgraceful scenes at the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium in November 2004 many condemned Spain and its football as inherently racist.
Obscure players who never made the grade gained more column inches detailing experiences of racism than they ever received for their exploits on the pitch. Yet many in Spain denied that racism was a problem at all. Throughout this furore one voice was never heard – that of Marcos Senna. We corrected that glaring omission with an exclusive interview with the man nicknamed el Tanque last year.
On February 7th 2007 England played Spain at Old Trafford. It was the first meeting between them since the ‘friendly’ of November 2004 descended into an exhibition of shameful racism. That match – more than any other in England at least – condemned Spain as inherently racist. English football pundits still mention Spain in discussions on racism in football, but is this an accurate portrayal of Spain and its football?
Not according to Marcos Senna. “In the years that I have played in Spain I have never experienced strong racism,” says Senna. Nevertheless, Mark Lawrenson is far from alone in his view that Spanish football is racist. Senna expressed incredulity when told of this perception – one that does not reflect his experiences.
“How can I say that Spain is a racist country?” he asks, genuinely bewildered that anyone could believe it to be inherently racist. “Since I came to this country in 2002 Spanish people have accepted me and I was selected to play for the national team. I have not suffered racism here or anywhere else. I am very happy here. Spain is not a racist country.”
Senna has been in Spain for six years. He is happy and settled there with a work ethic that has attracted admiring glances from several experienced coaches, so what does he owe his success to?
Although Senna is now a successful footballer with a lifestyle befitting that status, he didn’t always have it easy. “My father worked very hard to give me the opportunity to play,” he says. “Things were difficult in my youth. Like many footballers in Brasil I came from poverty. He inspired me to play football. I owe him a lot. There was a time when I thought about stopping, but he persuaded me to carry on. Repaying his faith in me is one of the most important driving forces in my life. I can never thank him enough.”
And succeed he did. Senna made his début for the little-known Brasilian side Rio Branco in 1997. Loan periods followed as he failed to settle. He played for América: Corinthians, Juventude and São Caetano. After impressing at the latter he earned a transfer to Europe. His values and work ethic were clear as he was learning his trade in Brasil.
“Coming from humble origins gave me strong values,” Senna says. “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.”
1 For further information on Donato and Engonga see On Patrol – The Tank wins Plaudits (Part Four).