On June 25th, 2001 Arsenal’s combative midfielder Patrick Vieira unleashed a volley aimed straight at the Arsenal board and Arsenal’s double-winning French manager, Arsene Wenger. Speaking to the Sun, Vieira tread what are now well worn boards demanding a trade “not for the money” but because “the club lacks ambition.” He lashed out at Arsenal’s parsimonious transfer policy, claiming the club’s £25m transfer budget, which was spent on Franny Jeffers and Gio van Bronckhorst, virtually guaranteed that the famous London team would finish outside of the top five. Savaging Wenger’s new signings and dismissing comments from teammates Thierry Henry and Robert Pires as losers who have “won nothing with Arsenal.”
People should know this is nothing to do with money. I need to leave because I want to win more trophies and I just cannot see that happening at Arsenal. Certainly not over the next few years, anyway. Comparing Arsenal to the big clubs in Europe this season is going to be quite ridiculous. I do not honestly see Arsenal finishing in the top five in the league – and you can forget the Champions League.
It was an amazing interview and you can read the quotes in full in this archive.
I have seen a number of people try to draw a comparison to Vieira’s statement and Robin van Persie’s. These folks especially like to draw comparisons between that statement and the subsequent never ending transfer saga which surrounded the Senegalese midfielder until he finally signed for Juventus, earning Arsenal £20m in July of 2005. And further draw a line between Arsenal signing Giroud and Podolski near the time that Robin released his statement and Arsenal signing Sol Campbell just eight days after Vieira’s interview.
But there are a number of problems with this comparison.
The first problem is that Vieira was not Arsenal captain at the time of his statement and Robin van Persie was. Vieira wouldn’t be captain until Tony Adams retired at the end of the season. Not taking anything away from the harshness of Vieira’s assessment, and in fact his interview is far worse than Robin’s measured statement in many ways, but there’s a difference between an important player giving an interview and a captain giving a similar interview. The captain is the person that everyone looks up to for guidance. In this case, Robin’s guidance is to shout “abandon ship” as he climbs into a lifeboat and sets himself to sail.
The second major problem with the two players is that Vieira had actually given “100%” to the club as he said in the interview when telling Henry and Pires to shut up. In his first five seasons, Vieira had already played 222 games for Arsenal, averaging 44.4 games a year. Moreover, he played those games with a massive target on his back with the likes of Roy Keane kicking him at every turn. In contrast, it’s harder for Robin to say he’s given 100% to the club. He’s been at Arsenal for eight years and has played just 277 matches. That’s a difference of -10 games a season over Vieira’s commitment. Arsenal carried Robin for three major injury hit seasons out of his eight. He owes the club, the fans, and the manager more respect than that.
The third difference is that Robin van Persie released his statement on his web site. He took time to craft exactly what he wanted to say and in doing so got in some petty digs at Ivan Gazidis. Vieira’s interview was actually a 180 on his statement of just a few days earlier that everything was fine with the club and he was happy. The difference is subtler here in that Vieira was later able to use the old “taken out of context” retort and also to hide a bit behind the Sun’s tarnished reputation. Vieira also manged to blame his agent, Marc Roger, for his interview.
And the final difference is how quickly Vieira reversed his position. In 2001, many places reported that Marc Robert, Vieira’s agent, basically lined up a deal for Vieira with either Real Madrid or Man U around mid-June of 2001. After that there was a face-to-face meeting between Vieira and Robert, and Dein and Wenger in which Vieira expressed his desire to leave and the club apparently refused. Vieira then gave his interview to the Sun on June 25th and everything blew up. Eight days later, Arsenal sign Sol Campbell and that very day there was an interview in the BBC with Giles Grimandi in which the Frenchman said that everything was basically smoothed over between Vieira, his teammates, and the club.
Vieira apologized almost immediately after the interview hit the streets, privately blaming his agent Marc Robert for the mixup. In fact, it was in Vieira’s apology where he basically blamed his agent for the interview with the Sun which in turn led to the FA looking into the matter — finally concluding that Man U did not tap up Vieira. By July 17th, Arsene Wenger was already saying that there was nothing to talk about and though the press persisted with the rumors all summer, Vieira played for Arsenal that season as the Gunners did the double.
In contrast, it’s been over a month since his Independence day rocket and Robin van Persie has not yet issued any statement, much less an apology. This summer, Arsenal have arguably shown a tremendous amount of ambition, signing three top players from three of the top leagues for around £35m. I’m more inclined to believe Vieira’s statement that it was about ambition and not about money because he changed his mind so quickly. But with Robin his silence in the face of Arsenal clearly showing their ambitions speaks to me that it was always about money and never about ambition.
In the end, Patrick Vieira’s time at Arsenal, and especially the years after he took captaincy, will always be marred by him and his agent’s summer disruptions. Vieira even further tarnished his Arsenal legacy by getting involved in the Nasri transfer last summer, earning him opprobrium from many Gunners faithful. But just as equally, he will be remembered as the heart and lungs of three title winning sides and the captain of the greatest team to ever grace the Sceptered Isle, the Invincibles.
I’m not sure that Robin van Persie will enjoy such absolution but it’s all down to him and his ambitions.