Back in June, I sat across a conference room table from Patrick Vieira, who was in New York for a panel discussion on sport as a tool for education and empowerment in developing communities. I was leg-shakingly nervous. It felt like the most important organs inside my abdomen had been wrung out like a towel.
I don't know what I was expecting, but Vieira's physicality is an exhibition unto itself, even as he sat entirely still. But despite his formidable build, he's got the gentle air of a man who would find a cockroach in his house and let it free outside.
Yes, in so many ways, this is a gent who played his soccer with hawkish urgency, yet looks today as if he enjoys the game like a long, hot bath and a glass of pinot. In contrast to the guy he's replacing at the helm of New York City, Vieira is downright fatherly. His demeanor is effortlessly reassuring. All of his smiles are easy.
And very, very big.
Somehow, much like in his playing days, when the Senegal-born French international sucked up trophies like some kind of impossible Cup magnet, the guy just makes it work. He washes over you, and it's genuine. He's like John Candy in Planes, Trains & Automobiles, but without that nutty mustache.
Five months before the Manchester City youth coach would be announced as the next top man at New York City FC, he sat down with me and our friend Christian Araos for a chat that included his thoughts on the unique opportunities to grow the sport in the Five Boroughs, the need for women's soccer to keep pace with the growth of the men's game, and his take on NYCFC's first two loanees from his Man City youth squad.
Oh, and how he really feels about Jason Clarence Kreis.
Let's get right to it, edited only for clarity.
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Hudson River Blue: You have traveled the world promoting soccer as a tool for education and community development. This is very personal for you-- in that regard, what opportunities are you and City Football Group looking forward to here in New York?
Patrick Vieira: I think what is important in this country and in New York City is to make the game bigger and bigger. We're talking about a number-one sport in Europe, but not in the U.S. at the moment, because there are so many other big sports here. But I personally believe that, in the next ten years, soccer will be on the same level as the NBA, baseball, the NFL, because of how it's been developing itself.
In the last five or six years, we have more franchises. We have more [American] fan bases watching the game in Europe-- the game is more attractive, faster, more exciting. But when you look at the number of kids playing soccer at an early age and the number of them making it at the professional level, it's really the minimum. I think having City here, and having other teams around, we can increase the number of young kids growing up in soccer, because of the knowledge that we have at Manchester City Football Club.
HRB: What will it take to continue to grow the American game so that it might reach the level of the other major sports here?
PV: To catch these sports, it will take time. What is important is how improved soccer has been in the last few years. It has to keep improving like that: having more franchises, having more fan bases, more kids playing.
What can help soccer is the national team. The national team has to do well. I watched [the U.S. men's team] against Germany and against Holland-- unbelievable performances! I will help young boys to have these dreams of playing for the national team.
HRB: In the Women's World Cup, it was strange to see a country like Brazil eliminated so early. They're such a great soccer nation, maybe the greatest. Especially in the developing world, what do you make of the disparity between how we look at boys' soccer versus the women's side?
PV: We have to give the girls the same opportunities as the boys. We have to give the girls the same facilities. Everything has to be equal for the girls to have the same success. Look at France: at Clairefontaine, they have the boys' section, but they also have the girls' section as well. This is really important.
When you have that equal approach, you'll have more success. What I mean by that is, in the U.S., the women's national team is doing quite well. They've been more successful than the boys!
HRB: By a country mile. What do you think the boys are doing wrong here in America?
PV: At an early age, there is a proper organization, there is a proper pathway, and a proper program for them to achieve and to have a chance to play at the professional level. There is a massive gap between [age] 15 to 16 and 18 to 19; 15 to 19 is the most important [period] in football development. There is a massive gap here in the U.S.-- how can you keep the boys who play [soccer] from the age of ten to fifteen before they go to do something else? There is not enough of a program to help them develop. If we have that gap, we lose more players.
HRB: I want to talk more about that critical period between 15 and 19: one player in the midst of that is Angelino, whom you've coached with Man City's Elite Development Squad., What can you tell us about him?
PV: I've been working in youth development at City for the last few years, and Angelino is -- if not the best -- one of the best players I've had.
PV: I'm not basing it just on the specific talent, but the attitude as well. The person, the football, the respect; I'm talking about the completion of the boy, of the player. I'm in love with him! (Laughs)
He's a good player that I really enjoyed coaching. He would be the first in training. He would be the last to leave. He will do extra even if you don't ask him. He loves football. As a manager, he's fantastic. He loves playing, and he's talented.
HRB: Is the plan for him to be a senior player for Manchester City? Is New York City a potential long-term destination?
PV: You never know. He has the potential to be a Manchester City player. I know that about him. But being a Manchester City player and where he is at the moment, there is a gap. How can he fill that gap? Coming to New York. Working with Jason [Kreis], who knows him really well. Jason knows how he is as a person, his strength, his weaknesses. Jason will help him to develop himself. This is the reason why he's coming. And having Angelino in the squad will improve that squad. He's at the step where he needs to be in the City family. He needs love. We need to take care of him. And Jason will do that and improve him as a player, so it's a really good move.
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Before we go, here are the highlights from the rest of our freewheeling conversation.
On Man City EDS alumnus Shay Facey's progress at New York City:
"I have to call him and tell him I'm here! He's a really interesting player, and a character as well. I'm really pleased because he had a difficult start, but things are going well. He plays more central now, and has had some good games. I think there's better [football] to come from him. He will surprise people.
"He needs to believe more in himself. He doesn't know how good he is. He has to learn more about himself, because he's really young and sometimes he has some doubt about his ability. He puts himself down a bit when he makes a mistake. But he will be an interesting player, because he's quick. He's really quick. He's really, really quick! He's good on the ball and technically. He can play football. He will even surprise himself."
On the systematic marginalization of the women's game by FIFA officials and football associations worldwide:
"It's a lack of respect. There is a lack of education about how the girls have been working hard and making sacrifices. These kinds of people don't know what the girls and the boys are going through to be at this level. You have to sacrifice. If they had better education on football development, they will not make these kinds of comments. It's just ignorance. I've watched the [Women's] World Cup, and it's getting better and better."
On soccer's power to change lives:
"There is a lot of good in football. Talking about how to use football to promote education worldwide-- it's really important. When I look at myself, I look at what football brought to me. Because football made me.
"Football helped my development. It made my education [possible]: I can speak Italian, I can speak English, speak French. I've got [all kinds of] different friends worldwide. I've been to different countries that I had never heard about before, and learned different cultures. Football opened my mind! So, I'm a good example of what football can bring to a person."