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4 Feb, 2018 21:03

‘It was bigger than just football’ – Patrick Vieira recalls France 1998 World Cup triumph

Arsenal legend and 1998 World Cup champion Patrick Vieira, who now coaches New York City FC in the MLS, spoke exclusively to RT about his remarkable career as well as France's prospects in Russia 2018.

RT host, former Liverpool and England striker Stan Collymore caught up with Vieira at the Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, home of New York City FC. 

Born in Dakar, Senegal, Vieira was raised in Paris, dreaming of becoming a football player and playing for the biggest clubs in the world. In 1994, aged 18, he made his professional debut for Cannes.

Following 49 appearances for the club, the young midfielder attracted the attention of Italian giants AC Milan. He spent the 1995-96 season with the Rossoneri, but only made a handful of appearances for the club. In 1996, Vieira made the move to Arsenal for £3.5m. The London-based club became his new home, and thus began a remarkable footballing journey for the French midfield dynamo.

“My dream was to play in the World Cup and my dream was to play in the biggest team I can. My first advice [for young players] is not to be scared to make a move. I think it’s really exciting when you’re a young player that you have a big club who are interested in signing you. You have to make a decision to go and if you go and see that it doesn’t work, don’t be scared to move on,” Viera told Collymore.

In 1998, the world saw France host the World Cup at a time when civil unrest and racism plagued the country. Les Bleus had failed to qualify for the last two World Cups and support somewhat unconvinced.

The players were desperate to prove their role as hosts was more than ceremonial. Vieira looks back fondly at his time with the 23 man squad in 1998.

“You had players who understood that the team comes first, who understand that Zidane was the main man, everybody understood where their place was. Being in the national team, being one of the 23 players was a dream. As a kid, all I wanted to do was to be with the national team. I think, we were a success in '98 because everybody understood where they were standing," Viera said.

"I was behind Deschamps, Karembeu, Boghossian, Petit. That is why I think it’s important to understand that, those players were playing in some of the greatest teams in Europe and they were playing really well for the national team. So for me, it was important to sit on the bench, to look, to understand and I was really close to Didier Deschamps."

"He [Deschamps] was really important to me because we had a really good relationship, talking, taking advice from him and he helped me to grow as a player. I knew my time would come one day, but it was important for me to take as much as I could from him and that would help me to become a better player," he recalled.

France defied the odds and silenced their critics while unleashing 19-year-old Thierry Henry in a tournament with the team and management under immense pressure. Injuries to Christophe Dugarry and Stephane Guivarc’h proved to have little effect on the team as France became the first host country in 20 years to lift the World Cup. It was a defining moment not just for French football but also for France as a country.

A moment that Vieira describes as being bigger than football itself. “It’s an unbelievable feeling. I was born in Senegal and I grew up in Paris and I always dreamed to be a football player and I managed to lift the biggest trophy in the world and for me, it’s a dream come true. When you achieve your dream you are proud about yourself and the memories like starting on the bench, coming on and giving the ball to Petit. Petit and I had a fantastic relationship when we played at Arsenal."

"France was going through a really difficult period of racism and to have Zidane’s pictures on the The Arc de Triomphe was something fantastic. Winning the World Cup sent the message, sent the image of France. That picture of the French team winning was the French national team with diversity and I think that time and that moment was bigger than just football,” he said, explaining the huge significance of the French triumph in 1998.

The European Championships hosted by France in 2016 saw the French campaign crash dramatically in the final at the Stade de France as Portugal won the game 1-0 after extra time. Vieira believes there is enough talent in the current squad to take the next step and win a major championship. The World Cup in Russia this year comes at the right time for France.

“Yeah, I think they have the talent to do it. After all, they have a really good manager who, for me, is a team manager and he will find the right words to bring them together. This is the type of player he [Deschamps] was before and with the talent, I believe that France will reach at least the semi-final of the World Cup.”