Phillipe Senderos: Goodison Passion Was Palpable

Phillipe Senderos joined Everton on a half-season loan deal from Arsenal in January 2010.

In an interview originally published in the Club’s matchday programme for this month's meeting with the Gunners, Senderos talks about life picking his battles in the boardroom, choosing from a selection of Europe’s elite clubs at 17, overcoming a vivid demonstration of nerves to deliver a defensive masterclass at the Bernabeu, the joy of experiencing a “rocking” Goodison Park and making history at home in Switzerland.

Philippe Senderos once told himself he’d “go to an island and chill for a while” after quitting professional football.

But it was a pipe dream, really, this sunshine idyll where Senderos would collect sand between his toes.

The player always bought into dad Julian’s mantra, “The time you don’t use now won’t come back tomorrow”.

Weeks after announcing his retirement in December 2019, then, Senderos was in a Madrid classroom, beginning the Spanish FA’s Sporting Director course. Within eight months of finishing as a player, he was appointed Sporting Director at Swiss club Servette FC.

“I started researching straight away what I could do next, I wanted to be active,” says Senderos.

“I loved playing and I miss it every day.

“The dynamic is different in this job but it fulfils me, there are so many things I can develop.

“I can’t rely only on the weekend’s result to grow the club, I need a bigger picture.

“I am learning where to put my energy to be productive. I have to pick my battles.”

That option wasn’t open to Senderos as a player but, listening to him talk between occasional sips from a tiny espresso cup, it’s hard not to conclude that the biggest fight was with himself.

Senderos was an elegant centre-half – he gradually retreated from centre-forward in the decade after joining Servette aged five – and at 17 had European football royalty forming a not-so-orderly queue for his signature.

His father is from Madrid and an ardent Real supporter but Senderos rejected the Bernabeu, Bayern Munich and Manchester United et al. for a move to Arsenal.

“Dad told me to do whatever I felt was right,” says Senderos.

“I wanted to hear football talk and Arsene Wenger clearly explained the project Arsenal had for me.”

Senderos counts the succession of injuries that prevented him from kicking a ball in his first Highbury season as a blessing.

“The biggest goal was to adapt to the culture and environment and style of play,” says Senderos.

“I’d never lived outside the family home and was in a new country at 18.

“There was no pressure from the club. I needed to prepare my body for the English game – and getting into that team [Arsenal’s slick 2003/04 Invincibles] would have been very difficult.”

The young defender was originally housed in club digs with Cesc Fabregas – Senderos is fluent in six languages and acted as auxiliary translator and English teacher for Spanish midfielder Fabregas – and remains in touch with the pair’s Irish landlady, Noreen Davis.

He began featuring for manager Wenger’s team in 2004/05, playing with “freedom… no expectation”, and finished the season by blunting the prize Manchester United trio of Ruud van Nistelrooy, Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo in a scoreless FA Cup final Arsenal won on penalties.

The ‘no pressure’ theme is woven into the erudite Senderos’ narrative of the following campaign.

Ronaldo, Robinho and Zinedine Zidane from Real Madrid, the star Juventus cast of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, David Trezeguet and Pavel Nedved and Everton’s nemesis from Villarreal, Juan Roman Riquelme, all drew blanks in opposition to Senderos, as Arsenal advanced to the 2006 Champions League final.

In the moments before Arsenal’s last-16 tie in Madrid, Senderos vomited on the Bernabeu turf.

“I am nervous by nature and that was how I dealt with those nerves,” he shrugs.

“I would have butterflies in my stomach from the day before a game but they disappeared after the first whistle.

“People deal with it in different ways.

“I have seen Zidane throw up before taking a penalty [scored against England at the 2004 European Championship].

“Some don’t talk about it because they see it as a taboo.

“I spoke with mental coaches about techniques to regulate, exercises and visualisation.

“Nerves were a positive thing for me, I needed them to perform.

“As a team, we had great cohesion and belief throughout that Champions League run.

“Playing against big rivals was easier because nothing was expected from us.

“But if expectation wasn’t there publicly, I put it on myself, I needed to take responsibility. If I didn’t, it would have felt wrong.”

Senderos was hurt in a derby game against Tottenham three days after the first leg of the Villarreal semi-final and missed Arsenal’s final defeat by Barcelona.

“I made the bench but it was frustrating,” says Senderos, cutting to the core of why he got into the game in the first place.

Older brother Julien swam competitively until 17 and ultimately forged a career in first love basketball, playing internationally and for teams in the USA and at home.

Philippe indulged those sports as pastimes but was besotted with football, specifically the Servette stadium lights he observed illuminating the Geneva sky from his balcony at home.

“It was football all day and night and my ultimate goal was to play professionally,” says Senderos.

He continued his studies until his 18th birthday, nonetheless – “Education was important to my parents and if I didn’t have one of football or studying, I felt unbalanced” – and speaks English, German, Spanish, Italian, French and Serbian.

Senderos’ father moved to Geneva, via two years in England, for work at a hotel.

Mum Zorica left homeland Serbia for Argentina as a child, eventually moving back to Europe in her early 20s and working as a personal secretary for a family circling the continent.

During a stop in Geneva, she met Julian and the pair settled in the city.

Their second-born son would make waves before his 18th birthday when he captained Switzerland to the 2002 Under-17 European Championship title, the country’s first major football honour.

“What we did was historical,” says Senderos, whose colleagues in that side recall nightly pep-talks from their articulate captain.

“We got knocked out through a bad decision in 2001 and I said to myself, ‘I can’t end on this’.

“I came back the following year and we won every game.

“I liked talking in the dressing room and owning responsibility and felt a duty as a leader in that group.”

Senderos finished with 57 caps for the senior Swiss team and played at three World Cups and one European Championship.

He went to the 2010 global competition – although his involvement was limited to 36 minutes because of an injury suffered during Switzerland’s opening 1-0 win over eventual champions Spain – following a temporary spell with Everton.

Senderos had spent 2008/09 on loan with AC Milan after William Gallas and Kolo Toure claimed Arsenal’s centre-half berths.

“It was a great experience in Milan, with a lot of big champions, a completely different working culture” says Senderos.

“At Arsenal, the manager controlled everything, not only the sporting side. In Italy, it was a different way of taking care of the team, with a sporting director.

“There were some complicated characters at AC Milan and Carlo Ancelotti was good at managing them.”

Phillipe Senderos
I knew Everton was a massive club but it was only when I moved there, I realised how big, the structure and how well run it was.

The opportunity with Everton arose midway through 2009/10. Senderos played 90 minutes in a 1-0 win at Wigan Athletic and came on to help close out a rollocking 2-1 Goodison Park victory over champions-in-waiting Chelsea.

Senderos started a Europa League second-leg tie at Sporting Lisbon in late February but lasted only 52 minutes because of injury. Everton subsequently conceded three times to surrender a 2-1 first-leg advantage.

“I believed in myself and always thought, ‘If you are not playing here, you can play somewhere else’,” says Senderos.

“Everton had a new training ground, Goodison was rocking and it was an opportunity to join an established team, to go to a brilliant place to play football and develop.

“Playing at Goodison was a huge attraction, I couldn’t imagine how it would feel having it as my home ground.

“I knew Everton was a massive club but it was only when I moved there, I realised how big, the structure and how well run it was.

“It was an Everton side with fantastic players – what a great team it was… well balanced, players in every position who could make a difference,

“They knew each other inside out and exactly what [manager] David Moyes wanted from them.

“It was hard to break that dynamic and get in the team but I knew what I came for and tried my best.

“It didn’t work out how I wanted, I hoped I would stay longer, but that was down to injuries and timing.

“I felt very welcome from the start and was pleased I had the chance to play for Everton.

“You felt the passion at Goodison and how much people loved the Club.

“Everything about it is special.”

Senderos joined Fulham in summer 2010 but a ruptured Achilles tendon wiped out all but the final month of his first season.

“I did more and more preparation and prevention work later in my career,” discloses Senderos, “if I’d started earlier, I might have avoided some of the injuries.”

Senderos “found out who I was and the type of player I was” as a fixture in Fulham’s defence over the next two campaigns.

“I knew my body and my strengths,” he says. “I was ready to fight and wasn’t being carried by other people.

“Intensity and concentration were very important for my performances and at Fulham I knew I couldn’t relax.”

Senderos joined Valencia on loan soon after the exit of Fulham manager Martin Jol in December 2013 but concedes “I probably didn’t do enough to establish myself at an amazing club”.

Everything seemed set fair when a move to Aston Villa in summer 2014 coincided with the birth of Senderos’ son but a bright start gave way to more frustration when a debilitating calf problem and manager Paul Lambert’s departure conspired against the player.

Senderos returned to Switzerland with Grasshopper Club Zurich in the second half of 2015/16.

He regained his national team spot but motivation was an issue in a less competitive league and despite the consistent upheaval taking its toll, Senderos readily accepted an offer from Glasgow Rangers.

“For the people around you, constantly moving and living the passion of someone else takes its toll after a while – even though we are family and love each other,” says Senderos, a father of two.

“We are very privileged but it is hard when you never feel settled.

“Rangers was a massive opportunity with a huge club but it came too late in my career.

“I was unfit and had injuries and wasn’t at the level required.”

Senderos’ reduced condition came home to roost on his debut, an Old Firm game at Celtic, where the defender was sent off with 15 minutes remaining as Rangers folded to a 5-1 defeat.

“I’d not had a pre-season, then trained for only around 10 days,” says Senderos.

“But it is my performance and I take full responsibility.

“I was asked if I was ready to play and I said yes. I always would.”

Senderos’ Ibrox career never fully recovered and the following year he moved to America with Houston Dynamo.

“I needed to find myself again and contribute,” says Senderos,

“I had a good relationship with the coach [former Colombia defender Wilmer Cabrera] and could express myself – I did some coaching and helped on the pitch.

“I have a big passion for the game and the work people do every day and won’t rule out going into coaching. I would like to do my badges.”

Going back to Switzerland in 2019, aged 34, Senderos acknowledged top-division football would be a stretch and signed for Chiasso FC in the second tier.

“We avoided relegation and it was a positive experience,” says Senderos, who stayed for four months before making the “very difficult” decision to call time on an 18-year professional career.

“I wanted to end on my own terms, on the pitch and competitive, not because I couldn’t find a club,” says Senderos.

“I don’t have regrets, I always came back and stood up for the next game or next club and I took a lot of pride from that.

“The lows – injuries or bad performances – are part of my career and the person I am. They build me up for the next phase of life.

“I tried to maximise my ability and believe in myself.

“If you start thinking about what-ifs you could rewrite your whole career.

“I always played to the limit and in the thick of the action you can make mistakes, or have good games, or get injured.

“I knew I was playing on the edge and didn’t mind.”

Senderos was a voracious reader as a young man. An analytical soul, it computes that he names Steve Peters’ tome on mind management, The Chimp Paradox, as a favourite.

“And,” continues Senderos, whose Servette team are outpunching their financial weight in the middle of the Swiss Super League, “I like books where someone pursues a dream because they believe in it.”

It must be familiar, no, for a boy from Geneva who thwarted Real Madrid and played at three World Cups, for a man back in his home city climbing the ladder all over again, this idea of chasing a supposedly fanciful notion?

“You always aspire to be at the top of whatever you do,” says Senderos.

“I am learning the other side of game and continuing to grow.

“There is still a lot to accomplish with Servette. But every project has a limit and I never close the door to moving elsewhere, if it is right for me.”

Whatever Philippe Senderos’ next destination, don’t bet on finding him in an oasis surrounded by the sea.