Patrick Vieira: 'great times for City'
By Andrew Warshaw
As Manchester City reflect on getting out of jail with a fortuitous but potentially priceless Champions League point against Borussia Dortmund courtesy of an inspired Joe Hart, former City midfielder Patrick Vieira says those disheartened by the club being plunged into the proverbial Group of Death should take a more pragmatic approach.
After making 28 appearances for City during the 2010-11 season, Vieira, who retired last summer, is now working diligently behind the scenes as the club’s football development executive, moving from department to department and gleaning as much information as he can about every side of the business.
The highly respected Senegalese-born midfielder – one of most recognisable faces in world football who made 107 appearances for France and played in the Champions League for Arsenal, Juventus and Inter Milan – refuses to bemoan the Group of Death is a handicap. Second season syndrome may be affecting City in the Premiership but Vieira says the fans should savour their European adventures against Dortmund, Ajax and, most prestigiously of all, Real Madrid.
“Of course it is a tough group but in order to win the competition, you have to play against – and beat – the best sides in Europe,” says Vieira. “It is the most difficult group but it is also very exciting for the club. I don’t look at it as a Group of Death. Look where the club were three years ago compared to now. Even if it’s at the group stage, you prefer to play against the best players.”
Vieira acknowledges that City have not always had the best press in terms of the conduct of individual players. It’s a tribute to manager Roberto Mancini, he says, that the waters appear to have been calmed. “A lot of clubs go through difficult periods; it’s how you deal with it. Everyone at the football club is pleased that Carlos (Tevez) stayed with us. Overall what is important is that he loves playing football. If you don’t have passion, you’re dead. As for Mario Balotelli, when you have big players like that you have big egos. It comes with the territory. Mancini should take a lot of credit for way he dealt with both situations.”
Yet despite the resources at their disposal, Vieira believes that only when City start winning titles consistently can they justifiably be recognised as falling into the category of greatness. In other words, rather like the enemy wearing red on the other side of the city.
“Listen, if you want to be a successful football club, you first need stability which means trying to keep the same people at the club. Then you need to try to win the league two, three, four times in a row. That’s when you really establish yourself. A bit like United, yes. You can say what you want about the rivalry with us but they are a good example of what I’m talking about because of what they’ve been doing for the last 20 years.”
Vieira recognizes there is another way of achieving success, however; such as when a team with minimal resources springs out of nowhere to share the limelight with the elite. “Money doesn’t guarantee success; you have to work and believe in what you are doing. I love that fact, for instance, that Montpellier are in the Champions League. The manager has the right philosophy. Nobody believed they would win the French league but they played the best football.”
Just as, perhaps, Arsenal do in the Premier League. Having been part of Arsene Wenger’s famous Invincibles, Vieira, who won three league titles with the Gunners in all, still has a soft spot for his former club even though he can’t see them breaking their recent title jinx. “I’m not sure they will achieve the success that we had when I was there but what I do know is that Arsene Wenger should stay in charge after all the negative talk around him. The problem in football is that you are judged on what you did the previous season. It’s never easy getting silverware when you are always losing your best players but the fans don’t realise how lucky they are to have Arsene.”
Away from football, Vieira is involved with a string of charitable ventures but his latest is arguably the most innovative to date. Western Union, the Europa League’s new sponsors, have chosen Vieira as the public face of their PASS initiative under which every pass in this season's competition will equate to funding one day's education for young people in 11 countries around the world.
The Europa League may be regarded as the ugly sister of the Champions League but this season comprises its strongest ever field and, says Vieira, should no longer be viewed as a second-rate tournament for also-rans.
English clubs have tended to treat the competition as a distracting nuisance. But not just the English. “In France too clubs have preferred to finish eight, ninth or tenth in the league rather than qualify for it but the perception has changed now,” says Vieira. “Look at the teams that are part of it like Inter Milan and Atletico Madrid. The way they beat Chelsea in the Super Cup was a fantastic advertisement for the Europa League. This year teams will play to win the competition.”
* Patrick Vieira is an ambassador for Western Union's new PASS initiative, turning every pass in this season's UEFA Europa League into funding for one day's education.