There are very few players that have graced the game who were as universally loved by the clubs they played for and also by the clubs they faced. Boudewijn Zenden is one such player. The former international winger’s career took him from his native Holland to Spain, England & France. At each club he played for he became a fan favourite because of his natural abilities and his commitment to the team’s success. Zenden was a fundamental component off the pitch as well. His former Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez called him “the glue that holds teams together, a fantastic professional who was always there between the players trying to keep them together”. Now in his career as a coach, Zenden is looking to transfer that same passion for the game to the next generation of stars coming through in Holland.
BackOfTheNet: Boudewijn, thank you for taking the time to answer our questions.
BOTN: Let’s start at the beginning. You signed for your hometown club, MVV Maastricht, before moving to PSV two years later. After six years in their youth team, you made your debut for the first team and over the next 4 years you became a fan favourite in Dick Advocaat’s side. How important were those formative years in your career and what influence did Advocaat and your first boss Aad de Mos have on them?
Boudewijn Zenden: Aad de Mos gave me the opportunity to start as a pro. He didn’t last long and then Advocaat took over. I had to work hard and fight to become a starter. I didn’t move to quick so I had time to become a favourite and it gave me the opportunity to work myself into the national team. I secured myself in the World Cup 1998 squad. Just before the World Cup I signed for Barca.
BOTN: As you mentioned, Barcelona came calling and you signed for them in that summer (’98). It was there that you started being deployed more as a wing back in order to accommodate you and Marc Overmars in the same team. You made your name as a winger, but having played in various positions on the left-hand side and in the middle of midfield, which one do you think is your best and most natural position?
BZ: I do believe that as I was a versatile player that I could do well in several positions. I always needed the freedom to go forward, as from a kid I loved to be involved in scoring or providing goals.
BOTN: How important is it for players to be adaptable?
BZ: If you are capable to adapt to different positions, clubs, competitions, countries you are more likely to have a good career.
BOTN: After Spain you moved to England, first with Chelsea, but then later with Middlesbrough, Liverpool and eventually Sunderland. Several Dutch players over the years have commented on the similarities between life in Holland and England and how easy it is to adapt to the league. Did you find that it was easy, and was that why you stayed for so long?
BZ: It is true that life in the UK and the Netherlands are similar but the league is so much different. The Premier league is physically harder. There are no easy games in the Premier League. I stayed long in the UK as I enjoyed the positiveness of the fans and the way the Premier League is handled and broadcasted. It arguably the best League in the world.
BOTN: You spent some time in the south of France with Marseille. Despite the surroundings, that move didn’t quite go to plan. What happened there?
BZ: I did enjoy my time in France. I played a big part as we finished 3rd and 2nd in the Ligue 1. Scoring against the biggest rival in Paris was a highlight. The OM fans are mad and are very tough supporters. I always enjoyed playing for them. Eventually I wished to go back to the UK as I missed the Premier League.
BOTN: Having played in the Eredivisie, La Liga, Premier League and Ligue 1, is there one of those leagues that you felt suited your style of play more than the rest?
BZ: I think I suited well in all competitions although they are different. In the Eredivisie you get a lot of time/space on the ball. La Liga is a tactical and technical high standard competition. The Premier League is a physically tough competition. In Ligue 1 I found the players physically tough but also many players played individually.
BOTN: Your first ever goal for Holland came in the World Cup 3rd place play-off game against Croatia and it was spectacular – a dazzling run followed by a powerful swerving shot that eluded Ladic in goal. Was that your finest goal you scored in your career or do you have another favourite?
BZ: It’s true that it was a nice goal, especially because it was at a World Cup. I remember scoring a nice one for Middlesborough against Lazio. For Sunderland I scored a worldy against Tottenham, that one also comes to my mind.
BOTN: With Holland failing to qualify for the Euros and now the World Cup, many are looking towards its youth prospects for hope. Recently the Holland Under 17s side lifted the European Championship which will help. How do you view the next generation coming through? Are you excited about Holland’s future?
BZ: It’s true that at the moment the national team is not what it used to be. Not qualifying for two tournaments in a row is a big blow for Dutch football in general. There should always be hope. I guess that it’s a matter of time that the Dutch will be there again.
BOTN: Rafa Benitez gave you your first taste of life on the other side of the white chalk when he hired you as assistant manager at Chelsea. Since then you have taken a coaching role back at PSV. How important was it for you to remain in the game after you hung up your boots?
BZ: I got the opportunity to stay in the game. When you can help the new generation with your experience it’s a good feeling. But I also like working as an analyst for TV so I’m still very much involved in the game.
BOTN: You played alongside Steven Gerrard at Liverpool who has now become the manager of Rangers in Scotland. How do you think he will get on and do you see yourself following that path eventually becoming a manager outright?
BZ: I’m sure Steven will do well at Rangers. As a manager you will learn along the way. I don’t know yet where my (managerial) path will take me.
BOTN: Finally, throughout your career you played with some fantastic players: Bergkamp, Lampard, Ronaldo at PSV, to name a few. But are there any players who you felt deserved more praise for their performances than they received?
BZ: I think all of them deserved credits for what they did to make the game what it is today.