Patrick Vieira: England just haven't forged team spirit
Former France midfielder bemoans relationship between manager, players and clubs
Like England ever since 1966, recent French sides have lived in the shadow of the Zinedine Zidane generation that won the 1998 World Cup and followed up with the 2000 European Championship. Zidane's men should probably have rounded off their international careers with the 2006 World Cup as well. Why did that golden generation succeed when England's ultimately failed?
Patrick Vieira, a veteran of those five successive tournaments from 1998-2006 who has spent a dozen years working in England, suggests three reasons which are less obvious than those more commonly advanced: the lack of a manager to break down club rivalries; players not bursting to play for their country; and insufficient development through the younger age-groups.
"I believe that England look like France before 1996 and '98," he said. "In France before that period there was big rivalry between the clubs, between Marseille and Paris St-Germain, and most of the players were from these two clubs. There was not the team spirit. And I believe that in England, the rivalry between the clubs [has meant] the players couldn't gel. Because they didn't find maybe the right coach or the right person that can bring the team together and forget where you are coming from, which club you played for, but play for the national team."
He cites the main club rivalry from his day, between Arsenal and Manchester United, and could even draw a parallel with sharing an ITV sofa with a famous adversary in Roy Keane, as he will over the next month. "I was at Arsenal and players were at United, but when we came together we forgot what team we were playing for. I think when we judged the national team the only concern is how we can do well together.
"With us the manager created that spirit and we realised that if we want to win we have to stick together," he added. "Look at Spain, and how many years didn't they win something with the quality of the players. It's because there wasn't the person to bring them together but I think [Vicente] Del Bosque has been fantastic for them.
"England maybe didn't find the right person to make them understand that. It's difficult to understand how the quality of the players didn't win a big competition."
Perhaps because some have been less committed to the cause than they might have been? "In England I'm surprised when I see so many players pull out because of injuries. I don't understand that. Even when I was at Arsenal and I was injured, I still wanted to go to the national team, because you must be really proud. I'm quite surprised how many times the players pull out of the national team. They don't want to go to the big tournaments.
"Also when you look at [Thierry] Henry, [Robert] Pires, [Sylvain] Wiltord, we played together in the youth team. But in England the Under-17s, 18s, 19s, 21s are not as important as the first team. In France every player will fight because they want to play for the national team [whether] Under-16, Under-18. And these kind of players, you find them afterwards in the first team. You build team spirit, it starts there. Even in the Zidane generation you had six or seven players who had played together in the European Championship at Under-21 or Under-18."
Vieira, now Manchester City's development executive, cites the case of another old United rival, Paul Scholes, "the best player of his generation", tempted back by Sir Alex Ferguson but not by any England manager. "He is a big miss. Again, when you have one of the best players in that position who retired that early it's quite sad for the national team.
"Alex Ferguson managed to get him back and find the right words and in England you may not have that person who makes him understand how important he is, for him to be part of it. When you look at the kind of midfield that England had – Beckham, Gerrard, Lampard, Scholes – these four players are as good as anyone else around the world.
"So I don't think England has found the person who will really make a difference, who can make these kind of players realise how good they are, how important they are."
That fits Vieira's theory that at international level man-management is more important than tactics. "How to talk to the players, how you will deal with certain situations, really give the players the freedom to play without something on their mind. The man-managing is more important than anything else."
France's Laurent Blanc has proved it, he believes, after the horrors of the last two tournaments under Raymond Domenech. Vieira's one concern ahead of the opening game against England tomorrow week is that if the team spirit is willing, the defence is weak. "The feeling is that we are a little bit concerned about the way we will defend. Going forward, I don't think we have problems because [Jérémy] Menez at Paris St-Germain has been playing really well, and [Karim] Benzema, Samir Nasri, [Franck] Ribèry. So there is a choice for the manager to find the solution.
"Individually they are really good players. Our concern is defensively because [Philippe] Mexès came back from injury and he didn't play a lot. [Adil] Rami at Valencia played most of the games and he was saying he feels really, really tired. We lost [Bacary] Sagna and Eric Abidal. Our back four is a bit of a concern for Laurent Blanc at the moment."
Which is at least one consolation for England.
How England can win the Euros: Win your first game, beat the hosts, bury your penalties – and be lucky
When it comes to the European Championship, England have been consistently underwhelming, only surviving the group stage twice and winning just six of 21 games in open play. Perhaps history can help them improve.
Avoid a false start
England have never won their opening game at the Euros. The tone was set on their debut in 1980 when they were held 1-1 by Belgium. England lost a two-goal lead against Portugal in 2000 and conceded twice in added time against France in 2004.
Look after your best striker
In 2004 Wayne Rooney broke a metatarsal in the quarter-final loss to Portugal. Gary Lineker suffered hepatitis B in 1988, while in 1980 Trevor Francis ruptured an achilles.
Beware the hosts
History does not augur well for England's final group game against Ukraine given their record against hosts: played three, lost three.
Practise your pens
England have twice got out of the group stage, and both times lost on penalties: in the Euro '96 defeat by Germany and in 2004 to Portugal.
Keep Lady Luck onside
"God was on my side," said Ireland keeper Packie Bonner after somehow keeping out England in Stuttgart in 1988. Graham Taylor also had awful luck, with injuries to Paul Gascoigne, John Barnes and Mark Wright in 1992. But in 2000, Kevin Keegan had another explanation. "We weren't unlucky," he said. "We just weren't good enough."
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