From the streets to the heights for Patrick Vieira
© AFP

Currently thriving in the Copa Libertadores and the Campeonato Paulista as a leading light in Palmeiras’s rebuilding project, young forward Patrick Vieira has had to call on huge reserves of adaptability and desire to overcome the trials and obstacles in his path.

From a difficult childhood in Rio de Janeiro, in surroundings severely impacted by drug-related violence, a social malaise that cost the lives of his father and several friends, via a move away from his family to Sao Paulo at a young age through to taking on the surname of the former French international, Patrick Vieira has managed to set himself apart from the pack.

“I think that by not getting drawn into a life of crime, I’ve already won,” the 21-year-old told FIFA.com. “After going through all that drama with my dad, my mum was already really happy that I went down the sporting route.

"And now she gets to see my games, which makes her really happy and excited. Especially because the whole family get together to watch: my grandparents, my two sisters and my great-grandma, who’s 90 and thought she’d never get to see me play [professionally].”

Catching Patrick in action as a child was simple. A stroll down to Rio neighbourhood Vila Kennedy on a Saturday was enough to catch the gifted youngster turning out for his street side, set up by a friend of his grandmother, Irineu.

“That’s something you hardly see anymore, but I think it was a good thing,” said Vieira, on the informal local encounters that brought his talent to the fore. “Back then I was just a little kid and we all played with freedom, without any responsibilities or pressure. But of everyone I knew from that group of kids, I’m the only one who became a footballer.”

It is football and religion that Vieira attributes to helping him sidestep the pitfalls of an upbringing in Vila Kennedy. There, tragedy was never far away, the death of his father coming when Patrick was just a month old, while when he was a teenager his step-father Carlos was run over and killed.

I think that by not getting drawn into a life of crime, I’ve already won. After going through all that drama with my dad, my mum was already really happy that I went down the sporting route.
Patrick Vieira, whose father died because of drug-related violence

As a result, older brother Petterson was a constant influence in his younger brother’s life, particularly after Carlos’s passing. “I always used to look up to him,” explained Patrick. “He joined the church before me and never got involved with the criminal groups. I followed in his footsteps, and not going down the criminal route made my mum really happy.”

During those neighbourhood kickarounds, his ability caught the eye of an official at Carioca heavyweights Botafogo, who lived just one street away. Handed the opportunity of a trial period, the then-midfielder made the grade, a prelude to three years with O Fogão.

Come the age of 16, however, he accepted a switch to Sao Paulo and the youth ranks of Palmeiras, where he signed his first contract. Though only six months in duration and for a very modest salary, it was a significant step for a player who, back in Rio, had sold copper, aluminium and anything else he could find on the streets to help his mother make ends meet.

Having been the apple of Simone’s eye, leaving his family to start a new life in another city was clearly a wrench. To the extent that, early on in his time in club accommodation, Patrick’s main thought was seeing out his contract and heading back to Rio. “But I started to play well and that helped me calm down,” said the player who, not long into his time at Palmeiras, was called up to youth national-team duty.

Featuring in a few friendly games with A Seleção at U-19 level, Patrick was also making progress up the ranks at his club. Within a couple of years, the up-and-coming starlet was training with the first-team squad, then under the guidance of now Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari, and come 2012 more opportunities came Vieira’s way.

It was over the course of that turbulent year, one which featured victory in the Copa do Brasil and relegation to the country’s Serie B, that the deep-lying forward forced his way into regular reckoning for a starting berth.

Patrick? Which Patrick?
It was during this period that Patrick acquired his Vieira sobriquet, as there was already one ‘Patrick’ established in the Alviverde squad. “I needed to set myself apart, as having two players named Patrick wouldn’t have worked out,” he explained. “Nowadays there’s quite a lot of that goes on in Brazil, with players taking on a different surname. And for me, it ended up sticking.”

Aside from a rangy build similar to that of the former France midfielder turned Manchester City official, there are not many similarities between the pair’s on-the-pitch characteristics. “I always used to watch him play,” said the Brazilian attacker. “His matches were always broadcast here, so I was able to follow him. I used to sit deeper in midfield at youth level, like him, but now I play further forward.”

That said, the name change is always going to bring comparisons with the ex-Les Bleus stalwart, a FIFA World Cup™ and UEFA EURO winner in 1998 and 2000 respectively. “Someone’s always asking me about it,” said the Palmeirense revelation. “And each time I just say that it’d great if I could have a career anywhere near as brilliant as his.”

Lofty ambitions indeed, though Patrick’s displays since breaking into the Palmeiras first team have shown he can legitimately dream of greater things. And back in Rio, when mother Simone and the family gather in front of the TV to watch their favourite player grace the field, you can be sure a certain Frenchman is far from their minds.