Getting to know Vieira
Skysports.com's James Dall interviews and trains with Patrick Vieira
Last Updated: 03/10/08 3:19pm
I'm in Milan and I'm slaloming through cones the colours of traffic lights, predominately using my right foot. The ball is under my control, and, as I gaze forward,15 yards away stands Inter Milan and France midfielder Patrick Vieira. His body language invites my pass. I fizz the ball into his feet, and he returns first-time. I adjust my torso shape to strike at goal, with gritted teeth I wind up to shoot...
But I am getting ahead of myself. Let me rewind roughly 10 hours. It's 4.40am and I am awoken from a largely disjointed slumber by the high shrill of an unfamiliar telephone. Out-of-sorts, I reach for the receiver as a monotonous voice reminds me of the wake-up call I requested on my arrival. An eye-lid wrinkles open, revealing the indigo of the early-morning sky. Velvety and rich, it is contradictory against the surroundings of my austere room. It is time to get up.
The combination of adrenaline and fatigue allows me to recall the following events in vivid, flashing images: Coach transfer. Rummage for passport. Check-in. Order Earl Grey tea and berry-based muffin. Yawn and stretch. Meet Will from Ford's feelfootball.com. Board plane. Buckle-up. Finish a chapter of 'Middlesex'. Take off. There is laughing from a couple in the seats behind. "Tea or Coffee, sir?" A fragmented nap ensues. Turbulence. Nervous laughter from behind. Ears popping. Touchdown.
Warm foreign air wraps around my face as we disembark. A taxi driver with thick caramel-coloured glasses takes us from Milan Malpensa airport to Sportland - the venue of the day's event. The site is vast and boasts indoor and outdoor pitches in impressive condition. We are based on the AstroTurf encompassed in a chalky-white shell similar to a golf ball. The texture of the playing surface resembles a green. We move through to the reception area where picture frames of stars hang from stippled walls.
The faces of Kaka and Gennaro Gattuso catch my eye. Standing inside the facilities, their stills represent their endorsement for its ethos. There are numerous stars looking down at me, including the unmistakable physique of Vieira. The 32-year-old is not due to arrive for a while, but already his presence is felt. He will endure a saturated day of press: face-to-face, telephone and television interviews in three different languages. I have the former scheduled at 3.20pm. It will be a one-on-one 10-minute slot with the Arsenal legend.
My arranged dialogue with PV would not, however, be the conclusion to my time in his company. The day centred around a training session, which would take place straight after. Competition winners would participate with Vieira, and so would I. It promised to be a potpourri of emotions. The proposed sequence of events would be alien: to adopt my journalistic carriage and conduct an interview, before briskly switching off my Dictaphone (tucking it away ever so safely) and beginning a warm-up, waiting for Patrick to intervene.
But before the specifics of the aforementioned occasions, an interlude, if you will. Let me refresh your memory of Vieira's achievements and events leading to his prominence. Senegalese-born, the towering enforcer started out at AS Cannes before heading to his current side's fiercest rivals, AC Milan. In 1996, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger brought him to North London. It would be in the red and white that Vieira would earn a reputation as one of the best midfielders in the world.
He lifted three Premier League titles and four FA Cup trophies under Wenger, during which time international glory was also manifested. Vieira played a role in France's not-so-distant dominance when in 1998 they claimed the World Cup and two years later the European Championship. In 2005, he brought an end to his career with the Gunners and headed back to Italy. A season with Juventus was followed by a transfer to Inter Milan - where he has already won two Serie A titles. He is now under the management of Jose Mourinho.
Interlude over, and I am handed a royal blue training strip by the people from Ford's feelfootball.com. I quickly change from my smarter attire as Patrick emerges. There is a simmering of excitement from the arriving participants: they have spotted their hero. From a distance, he moves with elongated strides, accompanied by his agent. Meanwhile, I thumb through my pre-prepared questions and double check the battery life on my Dictaphone. An Italian reporter is up first, whilst I wait in the wings. Before long, I am introduced to the star of this piece. He shakes my hand before, as part of his duties for the event, completing some signatures. "Ready?" I ask. "Yes," he replies.
We discuss several topics, including Wenger's war of words with Uefa president Michel Platini, France's recent troubles under Raymond Domenech, how Wenger's management style compares with Mourinho's, his thoughts on the Champions League, whether he will pursue a career in management, and Arsenal's shock loss to Hull City. Of his former club's defeat, he said: "When they lost at home to Hull it is really difficult. I don't believe that Chelsea, Manchester United or Liverpool will lose points against Hull. I really believe that one or two more experienced players at Arsenal would be great. I think that is what they miss. But they do have the quality. In one game they can beat anyone, however one game and the whole season is something different."
(Skysports.com will continue to drip-feed you the stories over the coming weeks, so keep a beady eye out). Interview over and I thank him for his time before pacing over to the players dressed the same as me. It immediately dawns on this Englishman that his Italian is more than limited. I am embarrassed at my lack of refinement as the group I am placed with coherently asks me questions in my native tongue. Your scribe slurs mainly Spanish words with a green-white-and-red accent. It is cringe-worthy, but I am enjoying myself.
A warm-up commences, with the coaches politely doing their utmost to ensure I understand. It is not long before Vieira drifts over. He meets with the players, who excitedly pat his back and grasp his extended hand. We begin a drill and Patrick looks on. His observation adds weighty pressure to our touches as we dribble through the placed cones. The standard is decent, and all of a sudden I feel an added anxiety. My subconscious has somehow convinced my conscious that I am representing England. I am the benchmark of the country's talent, exposed for all to see.
With that unwanted self-indulgence on my shoulders, the session continues. Next is a shooting drill, which brings us back to the first paragraph of the article. My teeth are gritted, and I am focused on firing across goal. My mind visualises my moment of glory. *Thud* as I strike through the ball. The sprawled shot-stopper is beat, but the silvery globe cannons off the woodwork, and out. This would be the closest I would come to scoring throughout that specific drill, for the goalkeeper turns out to be a Dino Zoff in the making.
Vieira gets involved in a crossing exercise and a match. His face illuminates with a grin from ear to ear when the younger, more gifted, footballers demonstrate a flash of skill. It winds down and everyone is overjoyed but bushed. Vieira concludes the event with a speech to the players. I head off to change back into my regular clothes, stashing the now-cherished kit into my bag. A flight back to London awaits me. It has been a splendid day.
Ford's Feel Football programme engages fans debate with Champions like Jose Mourinho, Anders Frisk, Patrick Vieira, Stefan Effenberg and Ruud Gullit online at www.FeelFootball.com and at live events around Europe.