Many football observers would argue that Patrick Vieira has little left to prove on the pitch. A FIFA World Cup™ winner in 1998 and UEFA EURO 2000 champion with France, the midfielder's packed medal cabinet also features three English Premier League and four Serie A titles.
And the fiery 33-year-old has now set himself one last challenge: appearing in a fourth consecutive FIFA World Cup finals and the first to be played on African soil. Indeed, having been born in Dakar, Senegal, a South Africa 2010 swansong would enjoy a certain symmetry, while the player's 34th birthday is on 23 June - the day after France's final Group A encounter.
Statement of intent
It was back in November 2009, while Vieira was splitting his time between the physio room and the substitutes’ bench at Inter Milan, that he laid his cards firmly on the table: “There is no-one better than me in France currently playing in my position.”
Coming from a man without 107 caps for his country, this might have seemed a little over the top, but everyone involved with Les Bleus knows the former national team captain is not one for empty rhetoric. “If he gets regular games, he will turn himself into a very serious candidate for selection,” said France coach Raymond Domenech.
Yet ever since a series of dominant performances at Germany 2006, the industrious midfielder has been dogged by injury. In the three-and-a-half years that followed, he made just 91 appearances for I Nerazzurri. Worse still, he has only lined up for France on three occasions – all friendly matches – in two years, his last international outing coming in a 1-0 loss to Nigeria in June 2009.
One thing 'Pat' has not lost is hope. “I’m confident and I believe in myself. OK, I’m not 20 years old anymore, but I’m not 40 either. I’m still in good shape and, most importantly, my drive is as strong as ever.” In order to persuade Domenech to consider him again, it was crucial that Vieira get back to playing regular football. Clearly not part of Jose Mourinho’s long-term plans at Inter, his thoughts turned to England, a nation whose pitches he had graced 404 times for Arsenal between 1996 and 2005.
Though undeniably a veteran performer, Vieira still needs his coach’s confidence in order to fully express himself on the pitch. This was his reasoning for choosing Manchester City, where he would once more cross paths with Roberto Mancini, the man who took him to Inter in the first place.
“Patrick is an important player with a good mentality, and I think the whole team can improve with him on the pitch” said the Italian supremo. "I hope Patrick can stay fit for the next 15 games because if we have Patrick at 100 per cent I think he can play very, very hard every game.”
Sure thing or long shot?
Only time will tell whether Vieira can make Domenech’s final squad, but from a purely sporting point of view, City’s January signing offers intriguing possibilities for France. If selected, it seems inevitable that he would reacquire the role of captaining a team brimming with talent but lacking a natural leader.
Lassana Diarra, Jeremy Toulalan and Alou Diarra constitute the current defensive-midfield options available to the Germany 2006 runners-up, but none of them share Vieira’s ability to drive forward with the ball. Only Arsenal’s Abou Diaby could be looked at in a similar light, but his last call-up dates back to 2008.
Before forcing his way back into the international set-up, Vieira will first have to secure a slot in City’s starting line-up, where the considerable presence of Stephen Ireland, Nigel de Jong and Gareth Barry makes competition for places just as intense. The new recruit finally made his debut during the 6 February defeat by Hull City, coming on as a substitute to occupy a right-sided central midfield berth.
Handed a starting place in the 2-0 victory over Bolton this week, he laid on Emmanuel Adebayor’s stunning second-half goal with a superbly accurate 40-metre pass. However, his lack of top-level action also told as he repeatedly gave away the ball and lost out in 50-50 challenges. “He had trouble with the pace of the game and it clearly showed. When he has regained the match fitness required at this level, I see him becoming a key player,” said Mancini afterwards.
So, is Vieira still capable of rediscovering the kind of form he showed on that famous July day in 1998, when his perfect first-time pass set up then-Arsenal colleague Emmanuel Petit for France’s third goal in the FIFA World Cup Final? Has he left the recurring injuries behind him at last? Is he just too old for international football? Faced with these questions, the tough-tackling ball-winner remains resolute: “I really can’t imagine not being at the World Cup.”