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Marcos Senna: Spain’s man from Brazil

Xabi Alonso is one of the finest passers in the game, which is why Juventus covet his signature and Liverpool will only let him go at a premium price.

The midfielder will not, however, be in the Spanish XI for tomorrow's Euro 2008 final in Vienna.

"We are very strong in midfield," he said, ruefully, when asked about his omission. Being a polite man and a good squad member, he did not add that were only Spaniards selected for the team, he would be in it.

For the man keeping 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.

None of this will have surprised anyone who has watched Senna playing for Villarreal, the upstarts from the Valencian hinterland who have become a force in La Liga and beyond. After playing for several Brazilian clubs Senna moved to Spain six years ago. He was already 26. In Brazil he progressed to Corinthians, one of the marquee clubs, but made less than 20 appearances. He returned to prominence in the unpromising surroundings of Sao Caetano, a previously unheralded club based in the suburbs of Sao Paulo who unexpectedly reached the final of the Copa Libertadores, South America's equivalent to the Champions League, in 2002.

That led to a transfer to Villarreal, who were about to embark on a fourth season in the top flight. Senna took time to settle and was a peripheral figure when Villarreal reached the semi-finals of the Uefa Cup in his second season. He was a much more significant figure when, two years later, the "Yellow Submarine" reached the last four of the Champions League, where they lost to Arsenal. Senna's passing, disciplined positioning, tackling and long-range shooting had by now come to the attention of Aragones, Spain's controversial, irascible, but shrewd manager. Senna took Spanish nationality, enabling his club to field another non-EU player. Capped in March 2006, he was a starter in the ensuing World Cup.

"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]."

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Senna made an impression in Germany and was linked with a move to Manchester United. He remained in Spain, but dropped out of the national team. He was recalled when David Albelda, who had been filling the holding role, became a victim of the infighting at Valencia last season. Senna seized his opportunity, so much so that Alonso's recent man-of-the-match performance against Greece in Euro 2008 was never going to be enough to win a recall to the first-choice side.

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.

Senna's progress has not gone unnoticed. "The Brazilians are very proud of the contribution their own players make," said Vickery. "The Euro 2008 matches are on here and they are being watched. Brazil have so many players there is no sense of treachery, there is pride that so many have key roles in other teams. Who of them would have got in the Brazilian team? Maybe Deco – but his profile has risen since he began playing for Portugal."

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.

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