Frenchman has matured to be an inspiring Arsenal captain

A boy called What! It is hard to believe that Patrick Vieira, Arsenal's captain, one of the greatest midfield players in the world, a football machine made of silk, was once a gangly 20-year-old novice at Highbury having such trouble with the speed of Ray Parlour's vowels that he was temporarily nicknamed `What.'

A boy called What! It is hard to believe that Patrick Vieira, Arsenal's captain, one of the greatest midfield players in the world, a football machine made of silk, was once a gangly 20-year-old novice at Highbury having such trouble with the speed of Ray Parlour's vowels that he was temporarily nicknamed `What.'

The only thing Vieira can't do terribly well is shoot. "I have to improve it. It is something not natural in my game,'' he admits. — Pic. REUTERS-

"It was difficult for me. I couldn't understand. I had to keep saying: What did he say? What? So that is what they called me.'' Vieira, soft-spoken and laughing, appears to be the kind of gentle soul you would hire as a male nanny. His expressive face radiates peace and joy.

Not because he has a Mercedes 4x4 in the car park and a house with a garden in Hampstead (with weekly gardener), but because he is a man truly fulfilled by his work.

He talks about the Arsenal captaincy with touching reverence. "It makes me a better man,'' he says. His sincerity can scarcely be doubted since he went from being a one-man disciplinary rabble who almost paid the Football Association's bill for Wembley in fines (pounds 78,000) to the svelte, suave container of ire that he is today.

Ironically, the last time he was sent off was last September against Chelsea. That was the infamous occasion he accused the referee, Andy D'Urso, of having "no personality.''

"I know,'' Vieira says. ''I must be the first player to be punished for hurting a referee's feelings.'' His own feelings are now far less ruffled. Even by the story that popped up at the Arsenal training ground about Vieira's supposed move to Juventus. "Supposed'' as in "entirely made-up'' by an Italian newspaper without a change of government to write about. A denial was issued by the club. "Anyone who knows me knows I am really happy here,'' the statement said in Vieira's words. The man himself, sitting on a sofa in the player's lounge, looked pretty untraumatised by the affair.

"This is a job where you can't stop people talking. Always there's rumours. It's not true. I will deny it. For the fans, for the team because we need to be focused. This is a big, big week for us, with Chelsea and then Roma in the Champions League.''

These are games that call for a big, big captain — and we do not just mean in the physical sense. Since Tony Adams handed over the armband, symbolically insisting that Vieira accompany him to collect the FA Cup last year, the Frenchman has been glowing with pride and growing into the role.

"It is really exciting,'' he says, "I love it. I love to have the responsibility. It makes me improve. Improve as a player and as a man.

"Now I think before I react. It made me change face. People look at you like an example. Arsenal is one of the biggest clubs in the world. Everyone looks at you, so you have to behave.

"It is easy to lose your temper in a football match, but you learn by your mistakes.'' Not for six years, he didn't. Eight times he was sent off after arriving as Arsene Wenger's first signing in the summer of 1996. He contemplated the statistic. "Eight times is a lot,'' he said wonderingly and then laughed. "But I took my responsibility, I talked to the boss, I just grew up.''

Against Manchester United in the FA Cup recently, when Sir Alex Ferguson's team were playing the maim as opposed to the game, the baby version of Vieira would not have been expected to last until half-time. Instead, he tore majestically through the full 90 minutes and greeted each foul with the disdain it deserved. "Every time I am fouled, I just think about something else,'' he says. Really? Does he think about the best colour in which to have his next Mercedes? ''Nah . . . I think they are just doing this (fouling) because it is what they have to do, because they think it is the only way to beat us. I take it as a compliment.''

He might have to enter the same ethereal realm against Chelsea.

"Of course, I will behave. They will try to wind me up but I think they try to play football more than anything else.'' At any rate, he is close friends with the Chelsea midfielder, Emmanuel Petit, the former Arsenal player and fellow Frenchman who is hoping to be fit for the game. "We will talk on the phone beforehand. We will talk in the tunnel. Only on the field it will be different.''

For Arsenal fans, enjoying "la difference'' has become a way of life. It is amazing how insouciantly they now accept the radical and cosmopolitan overhaul of a team once synonymous with nuts, bolt, graft and Peter Storey inglorious in midfield. In Vieira they now have a captain who transforms Wenger's footballing vision to driving action on the field. The manager calls him his "umbilical cord.''

The only thing he can't do terribly well is shoot. "I have to improve it. It is something not natural in my game,'' he admits. Psssssshew. There was a sudden sting and a thud. A small piece of dough landed between us. We looked up. A group of players were sitting at least 15 feet away. "Dennis,'' said Vieira. Dennis? Dennis Bergkamp? He of the angelic expression bending over his plate. "You are surprised'' Vieira said. "Me'' said Bergkamp innocently. At least the Dutchman can shoot straight.

"Maybe I just have to take more chances,'' continued Vieira. "It's not my confidence. My self-belief is really high. It is just that my game is more about passing the ball than shooting. But maybe I will score against Chelsea.''

His first memory of Dakar, Senegal, is playing football. He left Africa with his mother when he was seven and his recollections are vague. The one thing he can remember is playing in the streets with his friends and a plastic ball. Then he moved to the country outside Paris. By the age of 10, he was playing every Saturday and training every Wednesday for a little village club called Dreux. "My mother was very important to me because she was my mum and my dad. She was really good to my brother and myself. She tried to make us good men. She did a lot for us. She used to get up at 4.30 a.m. every morning to go to work. One of the proudest moments of my life has been to buy her a house in the country. She cried. You know what mothers are like.

"She taught me the value of things. I don't take anything for granted. I know what pounds 1 is. I know what money is. Of course, I have a good job and good money but I work very hard for it. Even if it was tough for us, we had a good time as kids. She was fighting to have a good life. We had food, we had Christmas presents. Of course, we didn't have pounds 80 trainers, but we were happy.'' xThe legacy is a profound one. Vieira seems to combine his mother's sense of purpose, a Frenchman's football education and a hunger to succeed born in Africa. "That's the way I feel. My heart is African. I had a wonderful time in Paris and, of course, I am French. I'm French with a big African heart.''

And perhaps a little English too? In one way. English breakfasts. He loves them. Not the mushrooms or the black pudding but everything else. "My girlfriend cooks them for me every Sunday morning and I love them, I love them.'' Someone has better check the FIFA handbook and see if this qualifies him to play for England. If the Republic of Ireland could do it with grandmothers, surely Sven-Goran Eriksson could try the "rasher and sausage'' route.

"Ah it is hard to say that,'' said Vieira, bemused. "But I have found the best place to do my job here. I have found a club that trusts me, believes in me, is as ambitious as I am. A club that puts a positive zone around you. Everyone is happy in the club.

"Here we have English and Dutch and Swedish and French. It is interesting for me to learn a little bit of all the cultures. We talk about the war because everyone has a different perspective. I don't follow the English way, I don't follow the French way. I just want no war. I feel like everyone is fighting for their own things, for their own business and, of course, I am against war like most of the players.''

Personally, he takes the United Nations path to captaincy. "I can say something to the players, they can say something to me. I am not a shouter. I am democratic.'' He governs the team by the example he sets, the effort he expends, the number of times defence switches to attack at his own formidable behest.

At the French academy in Clairefontaine, that crucible of World Cup-winning talent, Vieira was told by the under-21s coach that he was not entirely built for the job. ''He was too big, he has no muscles and he had a weak point with the knee,'' said Raymond Domenech. We should all be such impending failures.

Even the year he spent as a teenager at AC Milan, running on the pitch at San Siro less often than the ball boys, seems to have done him no harm. He is a cultural superstar with a journeyman's work-rate and baked beans in the fridge.

That is just as well. His ambition cannot afford to be deflected by celebrity. He has a list of things to accomplish this season alone. He practically ticks them off his mental clipboard. "FA Cup, Champions League, and the Premiership again. We want to be better than Manchester United, so to win the title two or three times is important. And we can.

"We have a young squad. I am only 26. I am a baby.''

A baby all grown up.