Bolo Zenden interview: ex-winger talks Xavi at Barça, Mbappé’s future & Santiago Giménez
Boudewijn ‘Bolo’ Zenden sits at his desk in the Netherlands and smiles as the microphone issues are sorted with the web call. AS USA had the chance to speak to the former Barcelona, Chelsea and Liverpool winger who is a serial league winner across the continent.
Zenden featured over 50 times for his country, the Netherlands, after bursting onto the scene at the turn of the century, winning the Young Dutch Player of the Year in 1997 before sharing a World Cup stage with Ronaldo Nazário and Zinedine Zidane a year later.
Opening chatter regarding the recent results in the Dutch league and PSV, a team that Zenden “follows closely”, leads to a mention of their rivals, Feyenoord, and the Mexican hotshot forward in particular, Santiago Giménez, who has scored 13 goals in 11 games so far this season. “He’s a really hard working striker”, says Bolo, who admits that “everybody felt that he would leave this summer, because he did so well last year. Everybody thought that he had a little fling going on with Tottenham but in the end he stayed at Feyenoord.”
Santiago Giménez ‘could be a player that moves on in the summer’
Zenden is quick to mention the manager, Arne Slot, who gets praise for having done “a massive job” at the club and is “using Giménez in the right way; they play a lot of balls in behind and he can make runs there. But I think that it’s obvious when you’re a striker and you’re scoring goals, then all of a sudden, you’re in the big picture. That’s exactly what he’s done.”
The job of being a creative attacker and a goalscorer is something Bolo knows inside out: “On the other hand, if you turn it around, you’ve got Nico Jackson at Chelsea: he scores a hat-trick against Spurs, but before that people were talking about if he was good enough because he was missing so many chances. So that’s part of being a striker.”
The conversation could not move on before a mention of Giménez’s future in the Eredivisie, with Europe’s elite reportedly sniffing around the striker. It’s a product of Giménez “doing really well”, says Zenden, “and obviously he could be a player that moves on in the summer to a bigger competition. I don’t see him leaving the winter yet. I’m sure that everybody wants to keep the team intact, to be able to perform well and make a move in the summer.”
Can Santiago Giménez win the Eredivisie with Feyenoord?
On PSV, the team where USMNT striker Ricardo Pepi is struggling to find minutes given the plethora of talent the squad has, Zenden admitted that he is “obviously still a little bit attached to the side. I played for many years and I was assistant manager for many years. They’ve been looking really solid and have 33 points out of 11 games which is 11 wins, but they haven’t really been challenged yet in the league”, perhaps the reason behind the manager, Peter Bosz, sticking with his preferred side and only giving Pepi limited minutes.
“They’ve done a massive job so far, but they still have to play the big guns, maybe Feyenoord, Ajax… The other day [against Ajax] was their first challenge but if you look at Ajax at the moment, I’m not sure if that’s a challenge because they were in big trouble. They play very offensive with a lot of pressure going forward.” Whether Santiago Giménez charges Feyenoord to the top of the league to challenge the all-powerful PSV, as Bolo says, we will have to wait and see.
Zenden won the 1998-99 LaLiga title with Barcelona, finishing 11 points above Real Madrid. During that campaign he played a huge part in a team led by Louis van Gaal that was filled with Dutch talent such as Phillip Cocu, Patrick Kluivert and the de Boer brothers.
The 2022-23 season for Barcelona was a positive one after a feeling of turbulence had permeated the entire club with the side, under former midfielder Xavi Hernández, winning the LaLiga title. However, this year has seen them take, according to Xavi himself, “a step backwards”, with a recent loss to Shakhtar Donetsk in the Champions League even causing some to question the Catalan’s future at the club.
Zenden discusses Xavi and Barcelona’s dip in form
“At the top is still where they want to be”, assured Zenden, who remains positive about the situation, “we also know that any competition isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon and there are a lot of games to play. Obviously, the big games are the ones against Real Madrid. They looked like they were going to win it and of course Bellingham made the difference for Real Madrid. But all in all, it still looks rather OK.”
“I think Xavi has done a great job, a massive job. When he came in, the club was still in a lot of turmoil, problems with players, with court cases at the top. The thing that I say is, if the roof leaks, then in the end, the water comes down to the dressing room. I think he’s done a massive job keeping the ship on track, when there was such a storm going on around the club”.
They also moved to Montjuïc to play in the Olympic Stadium”, Zenden acknowledged. Barcelona’s Camp Nou is a building site as the stadium undergoes huge renovation which has seen them forced to play games at Montjuïc, the venue built for the 1992 Olympic games. “That’s a massive change for the club as well. It always takes time to adapt to your new world – it’s literally your new house, and that’s never easy either. I’m sure that as soon as they can move back to the Camp Nou that will also give them a certain sense of peace.”
“But in the meantime”, Bolo added, once again referring to Xavi Hernández, the under-pressure coach, “they have to do with what they’ve got. And that’s why I said once again, I think Xavi’s doing a great job with Barça. The results are always the thing that will keep you in the job. So I know that in that sense, just winning isn’t enough, you have to do both [win and play well]. But I’m confident. He also signed a new deal, one that will keep him a bit longer at the club. I’m pleased with that.”
Barça off-field issues ‘could be a talking point in the dressing room’
The problems at Barcelona go further than just on-pitch affairs, with incidents like the Negreira case hanging over the club, as well as the precarious financial position in which they find themselves due to mismanagement. The former player admitted that it’s easier to play without these problems, and if they persist, things can indeed drip their way down into the dressing room.
“In the beginning, it’s always two separate worlds. But if it goes on too long, then in the end it could be a talking point in the dressing room, even if you don’t talk about it all the time. But if you can see things coming in the press then it is more likely that the dressing room will talk about it as well. So it’s always nicer when the water is calm than when there’s a lot of waves. That’s the same anywhere.”
“You’ve seen it at, for example, at Ajax, there was a lot of trouble and then in the end, it didn’t work well on the pitch. I think that’s always the same. Maybe it’s the same at any company if it’s football or anything else in business. If there is trouble at the top, then you get a sense of a bit lower down as well. It’s not a major factor. But it’s obviously there and at times it doesn’t make it easy.”
Zenden compares Mbappé to Cristiano Ronaldo
In the last week or so, Zenden’s former teammate at Marseille, Samir Nasri, said that Kylian Mbappé should in fact reject any potential move to Real Madrid in order to stay as the main figure in the PSG project.
“I don’t know why exactly [he said it]”, commented Zenden when asked how difficult it is to reject the call from one of Spain’s top clubs, “or what his opinion was based on to be honest, because I haven’t read it.”
“But of course”, he added, “Mbappé at PSG is the big man. He’s also the big man for France. Sometimes, as a player, maybe you still want to prove yourself in a different competition. Maybe it’s not that you have something against where you are, it’s just sometimes it’s also a motivation to go somewhere else and try your talent and see if you could do it in a different competition.”
“For example, like Cristiano Ronaldo, who moved from one competition to the other and was still capable of being top scorer and a different competition and still be the best in a different league or within a different team. I could see Mbappé move on to, for example, Real Madrid. The good thing is that Mbappé is in a situation where he can decide his future. There has been talk that he was moving, there was talk that he wanted to move, there was talk that the club wanted to move him on, and in the end, he just decided what he wanted to do with his future. I think that’s always good, that player has the final say wherever he moves.”
Zenden acknowledges ‘positive feel’ around Chelsea after Spurs win
Zenden, across an 18-year career as a footballer, played over 100 games in England across two stints, wearing the shirts of Chelsea, Liverpool and Middlesbrough before leaving England and eventually returning, signing for Sunderland. He spoke about his former side from London, saying that Jackson’s hat-trick in “a massive game” against Spurs has given them a positive feeling going into a huge tie against Manchester City. “Tottenham, playing with nine against 11, still made it really hard for Chelsea to break through”, he said, recognising the issues still facing Pochettino’s young team. “We already mentioned the striker Jackson, who’s been under a little bit of pressure for not scoring goals and missing chances. In the end he got a hat-trick and Chelsea looked a little bit more positive going into the next game, which obviously they need when they play City. I think City will be a totally different kind of game again. But it’s good to see them having a little bit of, not momentum, but a positive feel to it.”
“As for Spurs”, he continued, “I think they can be proud of what they’ve done so far, they really look the part. I didn’t expect them to be at the top so soon, because they obviously had a change of manager and they lost Harry Kane to Bayern Munich. But they don’t seem affected by it at all. It’s a pleasure to watch them.”
Zenden mentioned Liverpool’s return to form after a somewhat disappointing season last year, where teams such as Newcastle took advantage of the dip in form. The Premier League this season “is not a one horse race” which Zenden described as “nice to see” before admitting it is “interesting again with Liverpool back from where they were last season when they had a lot of injuries and they were really off the pace, they are now mingling again at the top. There are interesting months to come as well. We all know that in December there are always so many fixtures. Then we get to January, where we always have to look and see where things are.”
Netherlands and Euro 2024
The Netherlands, for whom Zenden broke through in 1997 ahead of the World Cup in France where his side would ultimately finish 4th with Zenden appearing in the semi-final loss to a Ronaldo-inspired Brazil. The former winger opened up on the current situation with the national team, who sit behind Kylian Mbappé’s France in qualification for Euro 2024: “This is the second time that Ronald Koeman is the manager. In his first period before he left to join Barça, they played fantastic football and they had great results, they did really well. They had a solid team and a solid squad. This time around there have been a lot of injuries and players suspended, meaning the results haven’t been the best. It’s been really tough to work on a regular group of players.”
“For example”, he continued, “one of the main issues is the goalkeeper: there’s not really one goalkeeper that stands out and makes a difference. It’s the same for the defence, for the midfield and the attack, with no striker who makes a difference. They tried to build a team around Memphis Depay, but he got injured. There have always been things going against them. In [Euro 2024] qualification it didn’t look didn’t look good from the start. France are obviously the big boys in the group, which made it tough for the Dutch and I would suggest that they could easily be second in the group. But even that seems difficult because Greece already have the same amount of points as they do.”
“Let’s hope that when the competition is there, when it really matters, that the Dutch can come up with a solid squad and that the players are first of all fit, so that you can make a good group that play regular football for their teams.”
Interview conducted by AS USA with TG Casino.