The 1998 World Cup winner is taking his first steps in European club football coaching with Nice
Vieira under special scrutiny in France with hopes he can emulate management success of Zidane and Deschamps
There may be a mischievous sense of regret, among fans of the English Premier League of the early 2000s, that just as Patrick Vieira’s coaching career takes off, Roy Keane’s seems to be in abeyance. Theirs was a playing rivalry, when Arsenal and Manchester United toughed out supremacy, as explosive as any. Perhaps one day it still might be relived on a touchline.
There are some footballers whose leadership instincts are so fierce that the balance between aggression and smart battlecraft tips over; Vieira and Keane often came to that point when they shared a pitch. By the time they hit their 30s, their qualities of command marked out both as potential managers. Keane, now on the coaching staff of his country, Republic of Ireland, has tried managing in the Premier League with mixed success; Vieira now has his first go at a European league.
The Frenchman goes in search of his first point in charge of Nice in Ligue 1 at Caen this weekend, having drawn a blank on his first competitive outing with a 1-0 loss at home to Stade de Reims last weekend. It was not too discouraging a start. His team had 70 per cent possession and 19 shots against Reims, who held onto a lead they had taken two minutes into Vieira’s big day.
The new manager lamented a lack of punch up front, and, with the French transfer window still open, the club have gone some way to correcting that, welcoming a new striker, 19-year-old Myziane Maolida, from Lyon. Maolida is the kind of young talent Nice hope their young, respected manager can attract, as they try to compete with France’s so-called "Big Four", made up of the megabucks champions Paris Saint-Germain, Monaco, Lyon and a resurgent Marseille.
Marseille, along the Mediterranean coast, have been moving to take Nice’s highest profile player, Mario Balotelli, away, an issue that has become a headache for Vieira. The new manager had anticipated that. Balotelli, the itinerant Italian who discovered in Nice a happy new home after a slump in his career, is a test for almost every employer. Vieira would like him to sort out his departure, if departing is his intention, promptly.
He would like Nice to see their season take lift off, too, because he knows he is under special scrutiny. He is a national hero, part of the France squad who won the 1998 World Cup and reached the final in 2006, the imposing midfielder who won over 100 caps but who, in some ways, remained as a figure rather removed from the theatre of Ligue 1.
That’s because Vieira spent almost his entire playing career with clubs outside France’s borders, whisked away from Cannes as a teenager by AC Milan. Arsenal then made him their centrepiece, dominant in the Premier League title-winning sides of 1998, 2002 and 2004. There would follow a series of title celebrations with Juventus and Inter Milan, before he joined Manchester City as an experienced guide for the beginning of that club’s well-funded renaissance.
City encouraged his coaching ambitions, and his evident nous and man-management skills became apparent in the past two years, as head coach of New York City, the partner club of Manchester City in the MLS, who he guided twice to second spot in the Eastern Conference section of the US league. Vieira talks of his “clear ideas,” as a manager and references the calibre of learning he had, from Arsene Wenger, from Jose Mourinho, Fabio Capello, and Roberto Mancini, among others.
Nice finished fourth in 2016, third in 2017 and eighth last season. Their target under Vieira is European qualification. If the 42 year old makes a success of this job, then a kaleidoscope of possibilities open up. At Arsenal, he is revered. At City, he is admired. And the French Football Federation, guardians of the new world champions, would relish seeing another of their former captains emerge, as Didier Deschamps and Zinedine Zidane have, as a top-class manager.