After 66 minutes of the last game of the season, Dennis Bergkamp did what he’d always done. Receiving the ball from the wing, the masterful Dutchman threaded an inch-perfect ball into the box for the stampeding Patrick Vieira. The Frenchman slid past a despairing Ian Walker before tapping the ball home. The year was 2004, and Arsène Wenger’s men had just made footballing history.
Enough has been said about the glorious achievements of that Invincible Arsenal side. Less, though, has been spoken about the captain of arguably the Premier League’s greatest ever team. At his peak, Patrick Vieira was a footballing Death Star, a physical and technical monstrosity who decided games with one scything tackle or searching pass. If Thierry Henry was Arsenal’s superstar, then Vieira was its nuclear soul, an irresistible force of nature that made the midfield his personal, unconquerable universe.
Born on 23 June 1976, Vieira’s love affair with the game began on the dusty streets of Dakar, Senegal, where he and his classmates would play with makeshift footballs and clothes for goalposts. When he was aged eight, his family left West Africa in search of a better life and, after arriving in France, the young Senegalese honed his precocious talents on the football fields of Dreux, in the Eur-et-Loire.
Aged 15, he realised that he could use his prodigious talents to pursue a professional career; AS Cannes were the first to spot his potential, wasting no time in appointing him as captain in the Cote D’Azur. “The manager saw me as a leader not because of the way I talked, but the way I behaved on the pitch. I always had that inside me, even when I was young. I’ve got this desire inside of me, this determination,” recalled Vieira in a recent interview with the Arsenal website. Even as a teenager, his relentless will to win was beginning to draw admiring glances from across Europe.
It wasn’t long before Vieira’s displays made him the latest star to grace the French Riviera. Eventually, Fabio Capello’s AC Milan secured his signature, with the Italian viewing the young import as a potential successor to Frank Rijkaard. Unfortunately for Vieira, however, his path to the first team would prove arduous indeed, with the likes of Demetrio Albertini and Marcel Desailly proving implacable obstacles. Desperate to secure a place in Aimé Jacquet’s squad for the forthcoming World Cup, Vieira decided to seek a move away from the San Siro. Ajax were among a few interested clubs, but it was Wenger who convinced the young Frenchman to join him in the English capital.
Arsène Wenger had just agreed to take over the managerial reigns in North London, replacing the ineffectual Bruce Rioch in 1996. As he was seeing out his contract in the Far East, Wenger advised David Dein to secure the signing of two Frenchmen before his imminent arrival. One was Rémi Garde, a reliable water-carrier and future Lyon and Aston Villa manager. The other was Vieira, who signed for a nominal £3.5 million.
Nobody expected the youngster to pull up any trees, but it became apparent in his first training session in England that this was a player of immense physical and technical potential. Vieira was the only foreign player in the squad for Arsenal’s game against Blackburn in October 1996, but his arrival was the clarion call for a footballing and cultural revolution that began at Hillsborough on 16 December 1996.
Arsenal were 1-0 down to Sheffield Wednesday, courtesy of an Andy Booth opener on 25 minutes. Just before half-time, an injured Ray Parlour pulled up on the pitch and Wenger summoned the young Frenchman to warm up. Vieira’s impact was immediate and devastating, his dynamism and guile completely changing the game. As Arsenal stormed to a 4-1 victory, Parlour himself admitted in his autobiography that “I’m not going to play anymore”, such was the prowess of the youngster’s debut.
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It was a symbolic moment, where the shackles of George Graham’s rigid conservatism were broken and the first shots of Wenger’s insurgency were fired. Vieira’s hungry performances brought another dimension to Arsenal’s turgid play, with Ian Wright admitting in Amy Lawrence’s book Invincible that Arsenal “were looking at a midfield player we hadn’t seen the like of”. Aided by the drive of his young French recruit, Wenger ended his first season in English football with a respectable third place finish.
Despite his impressive showings, it was a tumultuous year for Vieira, who struggled to adapt to the conditions and culture of life in England. At his first training session with his new club, Tony Adams would reveal his struggles with alcoholism, whilst the club’s training ground had been burnt to the ground. The team were training and working in conditions that were a million miles away from the trimmed lawns of Milanello, and Wenger’s foreign imports were viewed warily by a dressing room entrenched in its views and hierarchies.
Any doubts were quickly erased the following year, which saw Arsenal and Wenger secure their first Premier League trophy. Marc Overmars and Emmanuel Petit had arrived in the summer from Ajax and Monaco respectively, with the latter converting from left-back to form an unstoppable midfield partnership with Vieira.
A forward line consisting of Ian Wright, Nicolas Anelka and PFA Player of the Year Dennis Bergkamp swept aside all opposition, with Vieira recalling the time fondly in John Cross’s book, Arsene Wenger: “The atmosphere at the stadium at every single game we went to, and the way the home and away fans responded was fantastic.”
Vieira’s incredible year would soon go stratospheric, his dominant performances securing a place in Aimé Jacquet’s World Cup squad. Vieira was a regular fixture off the bench as France went on to secure a stunning triumph on home soil. With his team 2-0 up in the final against Brazil, Vieira came on to assist his Arsenal team-mate Petit to score a wonderful and climactic third goal in Saint-Denis. “Winning the World Cup in your country in front of all your fans, this is a once-in-a-lifetime achievement,” he beamed in a later interview with Sports Illustrated.
Things would continue in the same vein for Les Bleus. By the time Euro 2000 began in Holland and Belgium, Vieira had established himself in the starting line-up, and was an integral part of the team that secured a second consecutive triumph on the international stage. Domestically, however, things were less rosy.
Vieira had first shown glimpses of petulance in 1999, when he was provoked by West Ham’s Neil Ruddock into an unsavoury spitting incident. At the beginning of the 2000-01 season, he received two red cards in the first three games of the season, leading some to question his temperament and volatility. Some labelled Arsenal as a team of entitled continentals who smirked and sneered their way to victory on the pitch and lashed out when things didn’t go their way. Vieira’s red card against Leicester in August 2001 was the 34th in total since had Wenger become manager, and the consensus argued that the team, despite their flamboyant style, had an unsavoury side that didn’t sit well with the English traditions of fair play and sportsmanship.
On the European front, Vieira had become increasingly dissatisfied with Arsenal’s failure to progress in the Champions League. After succumbing to John Carew’s Valencia in the quarter-finals in 2001, Vieira reacted angrily in the media, refusing to answer questions about his future and imploring the Arsenal board to spend on players. After an ineffectual end to the season that also saw Michael Owen snatch the FA Cup from Arsenal, that’s exactly what they did.
Spurs’ Sol Campbell drew considerable opprobrium for his transfer across north London, but it was a considerable boon to a team that had grown reliant on the aging Martin Keown and Tony Adams. After a fluctuating first season in English football, Robert Pirès would also come to the fore, lighting up the league with his inimitable wizardry before suffering a season-ending injury. Arsenal romped to the title, with Vieira enjoying one of his best campaigns in an Arsenal shirt, appearing more times than any other outfield player that year.
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A disappointing World Cup in 2002 did little to diminish the reputation that Vieira now enjoyed as one of the best midfielders in Europe. For Arsenal fans, summer was becoming a time of high anxiety and tension. Rumours began to circulate that Vieira wanted to leave the club, with the likes of Real Madrid and Barcelona sniffing around, much to the chagrin of the Highbury faithful. As the 2002-03 season began, however, Vieira re-committed to a club looking to defend its title against a resurgent Manchester United.
In truth, Arsenal should have retained their title. With Adams retiring, Vieira was promoted from his vice-captain role, and the signing of World Cup winner Gilberto Silva freed him to influence matters further up the pitch. Despite breaking the record for the most away league games without defeat, Arsenal choked in the final stretch, a 2-2 draw against Bolton at the Reebok Stadium allowing Manchester United to reclaim the Premier League trophy. Wenger’s claims that his side could go a whole season unbeaten were roundly mocked, and a wounded Arsenal dressing room departed the season with a nagging sense of missed opportunity.
The following season would prove to be the pinnacle of Vieira’s career. Jens Lehmann, signed from Borussia Dortmund to replace the erstwhile David Seaman, was a commanding presence behind the immutable pairing of Sol Campbell and Kolo Touré. On either flank, Lauren and Ashley Cole provide able support to Freddie Ljungberg and Robert Pirès, whose blistering wingplay was conducted by Gilberto and Vieira in the middle. Nwankwo Kanu, Sylvain Wiltord and Dennis Bergkamp shared the goal burden with the best player on the planet at the time, Thierry Henry.
Arsenal looked unbeatable, and they began the season in impressive style, heading to Old Trafford on the 21 September unbeaten. What followed was one of the most memorable and controversial games in English football history.
“I had a lot of hatred for Arsenal.” Roy Keane remembers his battles against Patrick Vieira with violent nostalgia. His very personal duel against the Frenchman was part of a wider death match between the Premier League’s two greatest teams. Everywhere one looked on the pitch, there would be a personal duel of the highest quality: Thierry Henry vs Rio Ferdinand, Ruud van Nistelrooy vs Sol Campbell and Arsène Wenger vs Sir Alex Ferguson.
It was the best against the best, at a time when the Premier League offered a potent alchemy of blood and money. This was before the influx of oligarch wealth, when Roman Abramovich’s petrodollars blasted potholes in the level playing field. The Premier League was on the cusp of a new era, and Arsenal versus Manchester United was its flagship.
The game itself was hotly contested. Simmering tensions finally boiled over in the 80th minute, with Vieira being shown a second yellow card for lashing out at van Nistelrooy. Arsenal’s players were incensed at the Dutchman’s apparent play-acting, especially when he lined up to take a last-minute penalty that looked like winning the game for the home side.
As the ball crashed against the crossbar, Wenger’s men couldn’t hide their glee, crowding and pushing the crestfallen forward. It was an unpleasant sight, with accusations after the game concerning Arsenal players throwing food in the tunnel. The teams would go on to meet four times that year, with United’s victory in the FA Cup semi-final the only occasion on which they could be separated.
Ferguson’s men were powerless, however, to stop Arsenal concluding an incredible season. The solidarity shown by Arsenal players during the game typified a team that could brawl just as easily as it could ballet. This was a team of powerful athletes, players who could kick the ball or an opponent’s shin with equally brutal force. They could strong-arm victories when they needed to – but they rarely did, waltzing their way to the title with an intoxicating brand of football that rendered most opponents an irrelevance. Vieira was at the centre of this footballing maelstrom, directing his charges like a bloodthirsty general on a battlefield. Ultimately, however, it would represent the peak of his Arsenal career.
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After another summer of frenzied transfer activity, Vieira committed once again to life in north London. Arsenal started the season strongly, beating Nottingham Forest’s record for number of games unbeaten by seven matches before once again lining up against Manchester United at Old Trafford. This time there would be no fairytale, van Nistelrooy exercising his demons with a 73rd-minute penalty before Wayne Rooney rubbed salt into the wounds.
Further humiliaition was served in the return fixture at Highbury three months later, with John O’Shea scoring a memorable chip to seal an emphatic 4-2 victory for the Red Devils If more proof were needed that Arsenal’s Invincibles were spent, it arrived in the FA Cup final, where United did everything except win the game. It was only the boot of Patrick Vieira, scoring in the penalty with the last kick of the shoot-out, that spared Wenger’s blushes. It would prove to be Vieira’s last game in an Arsenal shirt.
That summer, Juventus made an offer of £14 million for the Frenchman. Wenger, concerned at his captain’s declining performances and conscious of the need to promote the talented Cesc Fàbregas, accepted the bid. In his autobiography, Vieira suggested that it was Arsenal’s apparent apathy that convinced him of the need to leave. For Gunners fans, it seemed a strangely sad end to a glittering Arsenal career, one that brought trophy after trophy during a whirling nine-year spell.
It seems strange to describe a transfer to a team containing Pavel Nedvěd, Fabio Cannavaro and Lilian Thuram as a step down, but it would soon prove to be the case for the former Arsenal captain. Vieira endured a torrid first year in Turin, suffering a groin injury that prevented him from playing at his leggy best. The season would soon get worse, as Juventus lost their title and were relegated following their implication in the Calciopoli scandal. Vieira, entering the twilight of his career, had no appetite to play in Serie B and was quickly sold in a swift transfer to Inter Milan.
The Nerazzurri took advantage of their rivals’ misfortune. After being presented with Juve’s tainted title, Robert Mancini’s men would go on to win Serie A the next season. Vieira, however, struggled to recapture the form that saw him become such a talisman in north London. Facing competition from Olivier Dacourt and Thiago Motta amongst others, Vieira’s ageing limbs seemed increasingly unable to compete. By the time José Mourinho joined the club in 2008, his days were numbered at the Giuseppe Meazza, and after his last game against Chievo in January 2010, he joined Manchester City on loan with an option for a one-year extension.
While Vieira made a decent contribution the following season, making 32 appearances as City finished third, the Frenchman already had one eye on his career after the game. The position of Football Development Executive was created for him at Eastlands, a role that saw him combine community projects with youth team duties. “His experience in the world of football is virtually unparalleled and he will be a huge asset to our club as old and young alike benefit from his knowledge,” remarked Chief Football Operations officer Brian Marwood.
Nobody should be surprised that Vieira found the transition from boots to brogues so comfortable. He was quickly appointed as City’s reserve coach, before finally taking on the managerial job at sister club New York City FC. Leading a team containing the likes of David Villa, Andrea Pirlo and Frank Lampard, Vieira secured a second place finish in the Eastern Conference and the side’s first ever appearance in the playoffs.
Few would bet on the boy from Dakar reaching his potential on the other side of the white line. For Arsenal fans, however, he will always be remembered as perhaps the captain of the greatest team in their history. To them, he will always be invincible.
By Christopher Weir. Follow @chrisw45