It was 1998. I was 10 years old. My brother was doing a semester abroad in England and started to follow the Premier League closely. I wanted to be like my brother, so I copied him.
When he’d call home on the weekends, I’d get on the phone and yell over my parents to ask if he had seen that one game earlier in the day. Amazing, wasn’t it?! My brother became a Manchester United fan; I, too, bought a baggy Sharp-sponsored Beckham jersey.
I watched every Premier League game I could get my hands on, and that wasn’t easy in Pennsylvania in 1998. It was on the floor of my parents’ living room looking at what I now realize was probably pay-per-view through a grainy screen on a wood-enclosed box TV where I figured out who I wanted to be as a player and, because I couldn’t separate the two, a person.
Vieira (at right) with Arsene Wenger at Arsenal | Alex Morton-Action Images
I didn’t really know what I was watching; I couldn’t decipher between good and bad. I was 10 and I could barely pronounce the team names, much less the players. I was just enthralled by the experience, and nobody provided an experience more than the lanky central midfielder for Arsenal.
It was impossible to watch a game and not take note of you. You were everywhere. You tackled and passed and scored and I could have sworn I never saw you break a sweat. You thought quicker than everyone else and you moved faster than everyone else and you made soccer look like more than a sport. You made it look like a lifestyle. I can’t imagine a young soccer player anywhere in the world that didn’t try to emulate Patrick Vieira.
Fast forward to 2016 and you took the head coaching position at NYCFC. It was… cool?… but weird? Patrick Vieira in MLS? As a coach?
It was exciting, but also scary. Greats players don’t always make great coaches. And MLS isn’t the easiest league to learn – allocation money and salary budget and all that – so coaches from abroad historically tend to struggle in MLS. My images of you included tackling Roy Keane and scoring on Liverpool. I didn’t want to write over those memories; I didn’t want to get mad at you for being a bad coach. If you had failed, I would have never seen you the same way. What have you done for me lately, ya know.
Over the two-and-a-half years, though, you built one of the best teams to watch in league history. Vieira the manager, like Vieira the player, found a way to blend power and control, possession and pace. You accumulated 1.67 points per game in your time in New York. No club has accumulated more points since the start of 2016 than NYCFC. And the club had only been in existence for one year before you arrived.
It wasn’t just the wins, either. Lots of coaches win. What I’ll always remember about Patrick Vieira the MLS manager was the unwavering belief. Not belief for hope’s sake – I don’t trust those people – but belief in a process. You didn’t throw random darts; you had a vision.
Vieira during his first preseason with NYCFC | Pablo Maurer/MLSsoccer.com
You always knew the type of soccer you wanted to play. It was harder and riskier than everyone else’s, but it’s what you believed in. Managing isn’t for the faint of heart. You accepted the negatives with the positives, always believing the good would outweigh the bad.
As a kid, I learned a ton from watching Arsenal’s No. 4 command Premier League midfields. As an adult, I learned a lot from watching Vieira coach on the sidelines. A sweater rather than shin guards, but nonetheless commanding. He still wants to impose his will on the field. The difference from then and now is that I thought Vieira the player made it look effortless. Now I understand that excellence is never easy.
The greatest form of flattering is replication. But not just in what you do, but how you go about it. The unwavering belief in something that’s hard but ultimately what you believe is right.
I’m glad I don’t have to write over my grainy-screened memories. Bonne chance à votre prochaine aventure.