By Bryan Graham, for SI.com
DAKAR, Senegal -- Patrick Vieira is known worldwide as one of the finest defensive midfielders of his generation, a fiery competitor whose brutish physical presence helped the French national team to a World Cup in 1998 and a European Championship in 2000. But in Senegal, the West African nation of 13.7 million people where Vieira was born before emigrating to France at 8 years old, the Arsenal icon is beloved for his commitment to education as much as his marauding runs and crunching tackles.
Last Friday, Vieira visited the PAH-U7 primary school outside Dakar as an ambassador for Western Union’s PASS program, which leverages soccer’s global visibility to support UNICEF’s education initiatives. He entered the open-air courtyard to 550 singing voices, met with the student government, gave a reading lesson and played a 20-minute scrimmage. The message was simple: Education opens doors and empowers you to follow your dreams.
Vieira’s message is of vital importance in a nation where the enrollment rate for primary school is 94 percent, yet roughly one in two children never make the transition to secondary school. The figures are even more alarming for girls, of whom only 17 percent advance, often forced to withdraw due to pregnancy or forced marriage as a source of revenue for their families.
Shortly after Friday’s visit, SI.com caught up with Vieira at the Radisson Blu Hotel along Dakar’s corniche ouest to discuss his commitment to giving back, his budding managerial career with Manchester City’s reserve team, and why he believes soccer’s popularity in America will catch up with baseball and basketball sooner than you think.
SI.com: You’re accustomed to having attention on you wherever you go, but the reception from those students must be pretty special for you.
Vieira: It is very special because last time I was here was three years ago. I like to come back to Senegal to have a good time and stuff like that, but what I’m really pleased and happy about is about the project, about what we bring to the country. That makes me proud because it’s something real. It’s something that will help the country to develop.
SI.com: What are your memories of growing up in Senegal? Does what you’ve seen here relate with your own childhood impressions?
Vieira: I went to school here but it was like -- what do you call it? -- like nursery school. I was eight years old when we moved, so I don’t have a massive souvenir. The images I have are not really clear. But when I first came back to Senegal after 20 years [in 2003], I went to the school where I used to go and saw some of the teachers I used to have, but I don’t have a clear image.
SI.com: What are you first football memories?
Vieira: The only things I remember is we used to play with a plastic ball and we used to do the goals with our T-shirts and our clothes or with our shoes. We were just playing.
SI.com: And then you went to France …
Vieira: … and the games became more organized. You watched more games on TV. You played in a club. You see how football develops. And you just move with the flow.
SI.com: Was there a moment when you decided you were going to take football more seriously, as more than a game to play with friends?
Vieira: When I was around 15 or 16, I realized that I could make it as a profession, as a living. This is when I realized this could be a job for me. People are telling me I’m good and I’m enjoying it and I love it. It was like, OK, just try.
SI.com: In 2002, your France team was upset by Senegal in the opening game of the World Cup. That must have been a strange moment for you.
Vieira: Half of my family were supporting Senegal, the other half were supporting France. It was really exciting. But for me, since the first day I saw the draw, I said this is a gift from God, because it’s fantastic. Opening game, the country where you were born against the country who opened the door for you. It was a gift.
SI.com: And then you returned to Senegal the next year for the first time since you left as a child. Was the timing there a coincidence?
Vieira: It wasn’t at all. It was just the fact that I had a fantastic project here called Diambars where we use football to promote education as well. And I always said to myself that when I come back, I need to bring something back. That project just followed and it’s been a good one.
SI.com: You’ve spoken of education as a means for preventing young African footballers from getting exploited. How much progress has been made on that front in the last 10 years.
Vieira: I think institutes like Diambars are helping fight against bringing young players to Europe and using them. The objective of Diambars is still: How can we use football to promote education? How can we help these boys to achieve their dream? What we have here in Senegal and the rest of Africa is a lack of infrastructure, so we tried to find a farm to build the facilities and now we have 120 kids where we take care of them seven days a week, 24 hours a day.
We give them the facilities for them to improve, we give them the coaches, we give them everything to try to achieve their dream. But on the other side what we want is them to do really well and to work hard on the education side of it. And when you mix them both, you have some fantastic results.
SI.com: In many ways that’s aligned with the more recent work you’ve been doing with Western Union and UNICEF.
Vieira: They are in line. This is why I didn’t think twice before making the decision, because I really believe in education and that’s why it’s really important to give the kids hope. The best way to do that is education.
SI.com: You just finished your first season as a manager with Manchester City’s reserve team. When did you decide coaching was something you wanted to do after retirement?
Vieira: Managing is something I’ve really wanted to do. Something I’ve learned to do. And I want to get better and better. It’s something that I will excel in as well. I have a lot to learn, but so far I love it.
SI.com: How would your players describe you as a manager? Have you modeled your managing style after anybody?
Vieira: I would like to interact with the players. I want to put them in the situation where they will have to find the answer by themselves. I’m just there to guide them, to show them the way. But I need to challenge them, because I need to tell them why they aren’t where they want to be are the massive gaps. I have to prepare them for what they must expect at the higher level.
SI.com: How much are you involved with or aware of Manchester City’s partnership with the Yankees in the ownership of New York City FC, the new MLS expansion team?
Vieira: I was there when that was announced. It’s a privilege for the football club and it’s a privilege for the young kids as well to be a part of a big football club with big ambition like City.
SI.com: NYCFC doesn’t join the league until next season, but they’ve already named Jason Kreis their head coach and he’s spent some time embedded with your team. What have your impressions been?
Vieira: He’s been with me for six or seven months now. He’s supported me with his coaching and I’ll be exchanging a lot with him because he’s got the experience as a coach and I learn a lot next to him. We exchange information and I love his vision of the game and how he wants his team to play. I think he really fits in Manchester City’s philosophy of how we want to play football: really attractive. It’s good. I like him. He’s a really, really good guy.
SI.com: It seems like people have talked about American soccer taking the next step forward for years. Where do you see it right now?
Vieira: I think what is encouraging it is taking a step up every year. You will have City [joint-owning an MLS club]. I heard Beckham is thinking of doing one as well. I think there are more teams, more challenge and it’s becoming more and more difficult to win the title over there. And I think in the next few years, more players will want to go to play in the U.S. at the early age. I think that is how they’re going to develop it, because you’ve got some fantastic South American players over there already. I think the progress has been fantastic and I think having City will make it go another step up again and it’s really good. I believe that soccer in the next four of five years can really get to the same level as the baseball and the basketball. It’s getting there.
SI.com: The World Cup had never been held in Africa until 2010. Eight years from now, an Islamic nation will host for the first time. What are your thoughts on Qatar 2022?
Vieira: Football is for everybody. I think there was a vote, they won it, and it’s their turn to organize the World Cup. Overall, that’s part of football, to help the country develop and boost the economy as well. So for football to move around the world through a big event like a World Cup, I think it is a positive message. It will be good for Qatar the same way it was good for France to organize the World Cup.
SI.com: How often do you think about 1998?
Vieira: I’m thinking about it every day. Every day would be exaggerating maybe, but this is something -- this is maybe one of my proudest moments in all of time. I think winning the World Cup in your country in front of all your fans, this is a once-in-a-lifetime achievement.
SI.com: How often do you talk to your teammates from that group?
Vieira: We talk about it all the time. And I think that says why we will be friends forever, because we share the same positive story. Winning the World Cup brought us together. That’s why I’m really close to the players from the ‘98 team. It’s difficult to describe what is the feeling. It just showed the diversity of the French national team, being different but living well together. The image of the national team in ‘98 and the diverse society of France was similar. It is the same.
SI.com: When it’s all over, how do you want to be remembered?
Vieira: I would love to be remembered as somebody who had time for the people. I would like to be remembered as somebody who thought about other people more than he thought about himself. I would want to be remembered as somebody who tried to help people to have a better chance; even if it’s two percent better, I think two percent is good enough. I would want to be remembered as a person who tried to help.