Bolo Zenden recalls his varied career: Barca, Boro, Liverpool, Sunderland…
Bolo Zenden played for clubs as varied as Barcelona and Middlesbrough during his career – but it certainly wasn’t just the biggest ones where he found enjoyment.
Zenden came through the youth ranks at PSV and won first the cup and then the league title in the Netherlands before moving to Barcelona in 1998 and winning La Liga in his first season in Spain.
He went on to play for Chelsea, Middlesbrough and Liverpool in the Premier League, adding another two trophies to his collection, before narrowly missing out on more silverware in France with Marseille and then finishing his career back in England with Sunderland.
Also a semi-finalist in the World Cup and two European Championships with the Netherlands, Zenden can certainly look back on his career fondly – but he nearly went down a completely different route, following in the footsteps of his father, who was a professional judoka.
“My parents have a health club back in my hometown, so I started judo when I was four years old, then football a year later.
“I did football and judo at the same time until I was 17, but at that point I got offered a contract at PSV so had to put judo aside.”
Zenden went on to make his debut for PSV in 1994-95 and played alongside stars including Ronaldo, Jaap Stam and Philip Cocu over the next four seasons, receiving the Dutch Talent of the Year award in 1997 and going to the World Cup the following year.
“Becoming a professional is the most beautiful thing,” Zenden says. “You work so hard as a kid to reach that, and the hardest thing is to actually stay there.
“My first experience at PSV was very good; we won the league, the cup, we won the Johan Cruyff Cup several times. I had to work hard to get into the team but soon I became a regular and earned my spot in the national team.
“Playing for your country is the most beautiful thing there is, especially when you go to a World Cup. I was fortunate to play in the 1998 World Cup when we got to the semi-finals. It was one of the best tournaments I ever played in.
“To score in the (third-place play-off) game against Croatia was something unbelievable, but we didn’t win so obviously I would have preferred to finish third and at least go back home with a medal.”
Zenden did, at least, have the consolation of a transfer to Barcelona that summer, winning La Liga in his first season in Spain, but he was again a beaten semi-finalist at Euro 2000 when the Netherlands missed two penalties against Italy in regulation time and then three in a shootout to miss out on the final.
“The transfer to Barcelona was a dream come true,” Zenden says. “It’s a magnificent club with a lot of history and only the best players go there so you’re part of them.
“Being able to win the league is something incredible, something you have to experience, and when you pass through the club you become part of their history. The city as well is beautiful so it was just a perfect period of my career.
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“Then, as a player, Euro 2000 was probably my best tournament. I played a very important role for the team, scored goals, and we had the team to win the cup.
“I can’t help but think we could have done better to reach the final, and you never know what could happen in a final. But it just wasn’t meant to be, missing five penalties! Two during the game and three in the shootout, that’s a situation you just don’t want to be in.”
‘Special’ Premier League
After the tournament, Zenden spent one more season with Barcelona before a £7.5million move to Chelsea in 2001 gave him his first taste of the Premier League.
Spending eight of the remaining 10 seasons of his career there, it’s safe to say Zenden enjoyed the experience.
“The Premier League is something special,” he says. “The crowd are always there, always positive, they try to support you all the way.
“A lot of the big players were playing there when I was, and you’d find three of the four Champions League finalists from England. It’s a tough league, very physical and probably one of the toughest competitions in the world.”
Zenden spent two years at Chelsea and helped the club reach the FA Cup final in 2002 before being moved on following the Roman Abramovich takeover.
But he was to taste success with a more unlikely club, winning the League Cup in his first season at Middlesbrough, scoring in the semi-final against Arsenal and then scoring one and setting up the other in a 2-0 win over Bolton in the final, earning him the Man of the Match award.
“I left Chelsea for Middlesbrough because I wanted to play regular football and there were some changes with the new era of Abramovich. But I had a fantastic time at Boro under Steve McClaren.
“To be able to win the first trophy in the history of the club and still to this day their only trophy is something huge. As a player you always try to write history, and with that team we did.
“When I speak with Middlesbrough fans it’s still the best moment of their lives so when I look back it’s something that is very special.”
Liverpool and beyond
Zenden won the Fans’ Player of the Year award in his second season on Teesside, earning him a move to Rafa Benitez’s Liverpool, who had just won the Champions League.
Zenden soon won the UEFA Super Cup with the Reds. Though injuries restricted his appearances in his first season at Anfield, he made up for it in his second, playing a vital role in the run to the Champions League final in 2007, scoring in the shootout in the semi against former club Chelsea.
“Playing for Liverpool is something very special,” Zenden says, “with their fans, the history of the club, the way their fans are united with the players.
“European nights at Anfield are just amazing. To be able to win a trophy, doing something for the fans is always great.
“It’s a great memory to have got to the final ahead of Chelsea. Before, the rivalry wasn’t so big, but Liverpool and Chelsea met a lot of times in different cups so it was a special moment for me to score such a vital penalty in the shootouts.”
Zenden left for France after two years with Liverpool, finishing third and second in Ligue 1 in two seasons with Marseille, before returning England for two more final seasons with Sunderland.
After so long challenging for trophies, that was a different experience for the midfielder, but one he enjoyed nevertheless.
“I had a great time at Marseille,” he says. “We finished third once and second, and honestly that second year we should have won the league, but we lost to Lyon three games before the end of the season.
“My time at Sunderland was a bit difficult because I was used to playing for teams that wanted to win a trophy, but with Sunderland the goal was to stay away from the relegation zone.
“My most special game for me as a Sunderland player was my final match as a professional. I was captain against West Ham, I scored a goal and we beat them 3-0 which meant we finished 10th in the league which was probably the best we could have done.”
It was a bit different to winning trophies with PSV and Barcelona, but Zenden found – and created – happiness whenever he went.
By Ramez Nathan