Have you ever dreamed of winning the World Cup for your country? What about winning the league championship for your soccer club? I sat down with Patrick Vieira, who has done both: He won the World Cup for France in 1998 and won numerous league titles with the likes of Arsenal, Manchester City, and Internazionale.
When I spoke with him in early June, he was the coach of Major League Soccer’s NYCFC. (He’s now the coach of Nice, a top club in France.) Vieira welcomed me to NYCFC’s training facility in Orangeburg, New York, to watch practice and to discuss his experiences reaching and winning the World Cup.
Vieira gave me a tour of the training facility and introduced me to many of the current players. I saw the gym and conditioning area, as well as the kit room/laundry room, the cleat room, and the dressing room. Vieira then invited me to have lunch with him and the NYCFC players and to sit next to him in the coaches’ strategy and game-planning session. There, they discussed things like the previous day’s game, things they would like to cover in practice, and tactics for an upcoming game. I then watched practice while sitting next to other members of the press. As I watched, I noticed Vieira himself was playing in the warmup game of rondo (keep away). At the end of practice, fellow reporters asked the players questions as they walked off the field, and I asked the goalkeeper, Sean Johnson, about what it takes to make it at his position in the MLS.
When I sat down with Vieira, we spoke about everything from his childhood in Senegal, Africa, to moving to Paris at age eight, to winning championships for some of the most well-respected soccer clubs in the world, to winning the most prestigious tournament for the world’s most popular sport: the World Cup.
Here in New York, where I play, the competition is varied. In France, what was the competition like when you were growing up?
The competition was really hard because there are so many kids who want to be a football player. I think that life in general is about knowing you aren’t the only one who wants to make it, so you have to work hard, you have to make sacrifices—and then [have] a little bit of luck. Then you can achieve your dream and achieve what you want. I was surrounded by talented players, and you are always in a competition.
Some people can play the piano with ease; they just have the natural talent to do so. With soccer, was that you, or did you have to practice every day for multiple hours?
You have to practice. There are some people who are talented technically; you have people who are talented because they are really smart; you have ones who are talented because physically they are really strong; you have the ones who are talented because they have a really clear vision about the game and game understanding; but that’s not enough. To develop those talents, what you need is your work ethic, and your work ethic will allow you to play at a higher level. Growing up I had so many friends who never made it because they were missing the most important thing: hard work.
What is your definition of hard work? What did you do that allowed you to propel yourself ahead of all of your friends?
I think it was that I knew that I wanted to be at the top. [I knew] I had a little bit of talent, but to use it I had to look after myself. What I mean by that is that I had to be careful about what I was eating, what time I went to bed—you have to conduct yourself as a professional. You have to make some sacrifices. Some of my friends wanted to go out, but I wanted to stay home and recover and go to bed early because we had training the next day. All of these kinds of sacrifices that I made allowed me to be where I am today.
You won the World Cup in front of your home country in 1998, when France hosted the tournament. Did that add pressure, or did it motivate you even more?
It increased pressure because the expectation is much higher since it was the French national team, and the pressure was there because the nation is watching. You don’t want to disappoint the people. You play with a lot of pressure, and when you play with a lot of pressure, you are not expressing yourself in the best way; it’s like playing with a handbrake. So the first few games in the World Cup were quite difficult, and then when we managed to win, we started to build the confidence, we started to build the momentum, and we started to be successful.
I have a team photo taken right after you won the World Cup. What does it make you think about 20 years after the victory?
When I look at this picture now, the thought I have is proud. I am really proud to be in this picture because it is a dream come true. Imagine a kid from Senegal winning the World Cup and playing next to some of the best players in the world. That is something that makes me proud.
If you look at this picture [of the Premiere League trophy], does it trigger the same feeling, or does it differentiate between club and country?
I think it is the same feeling. Winning the World Cup means a lot—[you’re] playing for your country, there is a nation behind you, millions and millions of people behind you. The team is the face of your nation, and it is the first time France won the World Cup, [and it was] in France. It happens once in a lifetime, so it is really, really, special. [This photo] is cool because I was a kid born in Africa who moved to France, grew up in Paris, went to conquer England, and made a name for himself in the game in one of the biggest clubs in Europe. That also makes me really proud.
To end on a very serious note: How do you come up with your goal celebrations?
I don’t have a clue because I don’t score very often because I used to play with Thierry Henry at Arsenal and with the French national team, so he always came up with something because he scored all of the goals. But me, it’s just about the moment, enjoying the moment. When it happened once, I just enjoyed the moment.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Top photograph: Shaan Gandhi