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Black History Month: Vieira’s Vision

Patrick Vieira used vision, tenacity, and technical ability to become one of the best box-to-box midfielders ever.

Soccer Exhibition Game: French Team Photo by Eddy LEMAISTRE/Corbis via Getty Images

When you think about the best teams of the late 1990s and early 2000s, included in that conversation is Arsenal on the club side and France on the international level. One player who was instrumental in the success of both was a box-to-box midfielder who was the essence of excellence on the field. That man was Patrick Vieira.

Born in Senegal to a Senegalese father and a Cape Verdean mother, he was given the surname of his mother, a Portuguese surname. His grandfather was in the French army, which made him eligible for French citizenship when he was born. His parents divorced early in his life, and Vieira moved to Dreux, France when he was 8 years old.

He got his soccer start playing for Cannes, making his professional debut in 1994 when he was 17. Vieira played so well, he was the captain of the team a short time later. After his season and a half with Cannes, he was signed by AC Milan, though he wasn’t deemed to be ready for Serie A and made just 2 appearances in his season at the San Siro. Most of his time there was spent in the reserves.

In 1996, Vieira moved to Arsenal in a £3.5 million transfer. He revealed later on that new manager Arsène Wenger, also French, was the reason he felt comfortable with a move to the North London club. “I am delighted to be joining Arsenal at the same time as Mr Wenger becomes their coach. Being able to speak French to him will make life a lot easier for me.” He quickly made an impact on the team, making 38 appearances his first season and scoring 2 goals.

One thing that Patrick Vieira became known for was his dependability. Very rarely did he fail to appear in a match during his time with Arsenal. Because of his durability, he was able to form partnerships with several players on the team, and he was the glue that held all the parts together. He did have a couple injuries that kept him out for some time, but he logged more than 40 appearances in all but his first season at Arsenal.

Arsenal rocketed to glory in Vieira’s time there, winning the double in 1998 and 2002. In 2002, Tony Adams retired and Patrick Vieira became the team’s captain. If he wasn’t suspended due to red cards, Vieira was almost always in the lineup. Even injuries didn’t really keep him from doing his thing. During the 2003-2004, he led Arsenal to an unbeaten season in the league. That team became known as the Invincibles, and Vieira got to lift the Premier League trophy for the first time as the captain of the Gunners. He would go on to play for Juventus and Inter Milan before finishing his career at Manchester City.

On the international level, Vieira soon became a regular in the lineup for Les Bleus. He made his debut for France in 1997 against the Netherlands, and he was named to the 1998 World Cup squad as the team hosted the tournament. He assisted on the 3rd goal in the World Cup final, to his then Arsenal teammate Emmanuel Petit, in the win to lift the Cup. The entire team was appointed a Knight of the Legion of Honour after winning the World Cup.

By the time Euro 2000 came around, every starting XI had Patrick Vieira’s name on it. He was the first choice for every match during the tournament, as they beat Italy in the final to win it all. France also won the 2001 Confederations Cup. He also was on the 2002 World Cup team that crashed out after their opening match upset at the hands of Senegal.

Vieira was able to assume the role of captain of France after Zidane’s retirement from international football, but when he returned in August 2005, Vieira gave Zidane the armband back. Vieira would reacquire the armband on his 30th birthday in the opening match of the World Cup and would assume the role full time after the conclusion of the 2006 World Cup, which ended with a loss to Italy in the final.

Patrick Vieira is viewed as one of the best box-to-box midfielders of all time, combining tenacity with technical ability. He had a terrific ability to read the defense and react with incredible vision as he dissected his opponent. He was also great in the air, which helped on both offense and defense. It led many to consider him one of the greatest midfielders in the game, and in 2004, Pelé named him to his list of the 100 greatest living footballers.

There’s so many awards in Patrick Vieira’s trophy room. He won 3 Premier Leagues, 5 FA Cups, 3 Community Shields, 3 Serie A titles, and 2 Italian Super Cups during his career. On top of that, he has winners medals from the 1998 World Cup, Euro 2000, and the 2001 Confederations Cup, with a runners-up medal from the 2006 World Cup. You’ll find few people who won more at every level of the game.

Patrick Vieira’s legacy is one that will stand the test of time. He’s gone on to become a manager with New York City FC and OGC Nice, and if his teams play the style he utilized during his career, he will develop some pretty successful players down the line.

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For more Black History Month stories, check out our Black History Month hub. We will be bringing a story each day this month to highlight some of the biggest moments in black American and world soccer history.