Senegal match 'God's gift' to Vieira

John Lichfield
Sunday 29 December 2013 03:12

Many people, but one man above all, will have mixed emotions when France and Senegal run out for the opening match of the World Cup finals on Friday.

Patrick Vieira, the Arsenal and France midfielder, first kicked a football in the back streets of Dakar, the capital of Senegal.

"I remember well the half-torn, plastic balls with which we had great fun for hours," he said. "We knew nothing about the stars of the game. I never saw a match on television. It was... football in its rawest state." When he was seven years old, Vieira left Senegal for Trappes, the same suburb, south of Paris, which produced Nicolas Anelka.

Vieira is a French citizen, the undisputed, midfield anchor of the France team and determined to beat the team from the country where he was born. And yet he says that "in the depths of my soul, I feel Senegalese. This culture is anchored in me, because that was the way my family brought me up.

"This will be my match. An extraordinary, rare, unforgettable moment. It is a present from God in his goodness."

Vieira is one strand in a cat's cradle of interconnections between the two teams who will inaugurate the World Cup. The Senegal manager, Bruno Metsu, is French. All but three of the 23 players in the Senegal squad – and the whole of the likely starting 11 – play in the French league. Two of them – Strasbourg's Habib Bèye and Lille's Sylvain Ndiaye – were born in France but choose to play for Senegal. By contrast, only five of the players in the France squad, including the two reserve goalkeepers, play in the French First Division.

Vieira is one of three France players who were born in Africa. The others are Marcel Desailly, born in Ghana but adopted with his whole family by a French diplomat, and Claude Makelele, born in Kinshasa, in the Congo, and naturalised French after leaving to play football in France as a teenager.

The remaining members of Roger Lemerre's squad, though it comprises members of almost every ethnic and immigrant group in the country, were born in France.

Vieira gives France the credit for his emergence as one of the greatest defensive midfielders in the world. "The sense of belonging to a team, the culture of football, I learned in France," he said. "I still remember the expeditions we made [as a child] and the wonderful coaches we had."

However, he also spoke of his "pride" when fans at Highbury start their Vieira chant "he comes from Senegal". "The English can hardly draw the map of Europe, so you can imagine what it's like for them to find Senegal. Now, they know where it is," he said.

Vieira said his mother, Rose, who brought him up single-handedly after they left Senegal, often attends matches at Highbury. "She also gets goose-bumps [when they start the Senegal chant]. She is very proud. She joins in with the whole stadium."

Of Friday's match, Vieira describes Senegal as a team who can "beat the whole world on their day". However, he believes that, even without the injured Zinedine Zidane, a "supermotivated" France will have too much experience for a team playing its first match in a World Cup finals.

Nevertheless, he is urging fans – and his team-mates – to watch out for two of the "Indomitable Lions" of Senegal, in particular: his friend El-Hadji Diouf, the Lens striker, and the Auxerre defender, Khalilou Fadiga, "whose game I adore".

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments