Interview, Nelson Vivas: From Arsenal "kicking machine" to Estudiantes gaffer – and a lot more in between
Some people just end up being in the right place at the right time. “My life in football has been full of many very unlikely moments – I’m just about getting used to it now,” chuckles Nelson Vivas a day after being named Argentina’s manager of the year in his debut season at Estudiantes. “The nicest thing about football is that you never know what will happen next – even the most unexpected things can take place.”
That’s certainly been the way of it throughout a career full of some fantastic tales – and that’s before you get to him leading his current club to the top of the league, a spot in the Copa Libertadores and an epic 21-match unbeaten run, all with a previously unfancied squad.
Long before Gilberto Silva or Alexis Sanchez, Vivas became the first ever South American player to put pen to paper at Arsenal – not that he’s particularly well remembered in north London. Still, he won 39 caps for Argentina and was part of the squad that travelled to the 1998 World Cup, playing the full 120 minutes of his country’s penalty shootout victory over England. He played with everyone from Tony Adams to Diego Maradona, via Gabriel Batistuta, Dennis Bergkamp and the Brazilian Ronaldo.
Vivas is also among the very few men to have played for both Boca Juniors and River Plate, and has been managed by Manuel Pellegrini, Arsene Wenger, Hector Cuper and Daniel Passarella, not to mention Argentina’s three most renowned bosses of the modern era: Cesar Menotti, Carlos Bilardo and Marcelo Bielsa. He later acted as Diego Simeone’s right-hand man at Estudiantes, River and San Lorenzo, coaching the likes of Juan Sebastian Veron and Radamel Falcao.
In the last 20 years, Vivas has somehow managed to be on hand to witness some of football’s most iconic moments, biggest games and most important coaching revolutions. He has often been the common man who just so happened to be strolling through the background.
This is a man with more than a few stories to tell, and he has invited FourFourTwo to his current workplace to share them.
Michael Owen was really difficult to stop. I’ve got a picture showing my ankle completely bent as I tried to stop him. Fortunately, I’ve always been a little bit elastic
The former right-back welcomes us to his first-floor bunker, a near-empty room with artificial grass, red-and-white walls and a few windows that overlook a football pitch and a forest. The room, which is sometimes used for physiotherapy, features just the one object: a chair. It’s clearly a place he comes to for some quiet time.
“I like this place because I can see the players’ lodge,” Vivas says as he looks out across his domain. “It was there, when I was 21 years old, that I came for a trial but ran away after two days. I just went home.”
The aforementioned career looked impossible for a man who had reached the age of 21 without having played a professional match.
“After I quit Estudiantes, I talked with my father and decided that football was not for me. I decided it would be better for me to study. I also worked with my uncle, a blacksmith, and spent 14 months on duty with the military. But then I went to have a final trial at Quilmes, and just a few years later I was playing alongside Diego Maradona at Boca Juniors, then facing England at the World Cup.”
His most vivid memory of that titanic tussle is the moment Argentina’s keeper Carlos Roa saved David Batty’s penalty – and not just because it put the Albiceleste through to the quarter-finals. “That moment was a mixture of joy and a relief for me, because I was down to take the sixth penalty,” he laughs. “Not many people know about that, but I would have taken the first sudden-death penalty.
“Michael Owen was really difficult to stop,” Vivas adds, puffing out his cheeks as he recalls the chastening experience of facing the rapid 18-year-old. “I’ve got a picture showing my ankle completely bent as I tried to stop him. Fortunately, I’ve always been a little bit elastic. As a kid, I would jump from the roof of my house and land on my feet. It is one of the reasons why I was good at headers despite being 5ft 5in, and also an explanation to why I don’t have knee cartilage anymore!”