Interview, Nelson Vivas: From Arsenal "kicking machine" to Estudiantes gaffer – and a lot more in between
Impressed by Arsene
It was strange meeting Wenger because I didn’t speak English, so he only talked to my lawyer, and I was sat there not knowing what either of them were talking about
Bar the lack of knee cartilage, Vivas – now a 47-year-old – still appears to be in perfect shape. The only noticeable difference from his playing times is the rebellious beard he’s recently sprouted.
“I’ve taken some weird decisions during my career, perhaps based on my lack of experience. Things that I’d never do now, like leaving Boca to join a Second Division Swiss team when I was aiming to be with the World Cup squad at the end of the season.”
Yet that move – to unheralded Lugano – turned out to be a good one. “We won the league and I played every game. I must have impressed [Argentina manager] Passarella, because he then had me man-mark Ronaldo at the Maracana. We won 1-0, which is still Argentina’s most recent win there, and I had earned my place in the team for the World Cup. It was then that Arsenal knocked on my door.”
A competent right-back who also excelled as part of a three-man defence, Vivas still recalls his first meeting with forward-thinking Gunners boss Wenger: “Once Argentina were out of the World Cup, I met Wenger in a restaurant in Paris. It was a very strange situation because I didn’t speak English, so he only talked to my lawyer, and I was sat there not knowing what either of them were talking about!”
Recently, Javier Mascherano congratulated Vivas via Twitter for an interview in which he said, among other things, that winning should not be the only measure of football success, as a manager should be able to see the broader picture. This was most likely a philosophy that was developed at Arsenal, where he made 71 first-team appearances (although just 30 starts) between 1998 and 2001.
“Arsene Wenger was a total manager, not just taking care of tactics, but of every little thing,” Vivas recalls fondly. “It has been years since I have been there, but I could still tell you, with pinpoint accuracy, the whereabouts of everything at the club’s training ground, which Arsene carefully designed right down to the tiniest detail.”
Vive la révolution
All exercises at Arsenal included the ball, in reduced spaces, four goalmouths, everything precisely timed – something that I had never done before
Of course, the late ’90s were a time of great change in English football. Nowhere more so than at Arsenal, where Wenger’s squad was full of old-school English footballers, and all those old traditions were blended with the French gaffer’s more considered approach. Vivas relished it.
“Having a captain like Tony Adams was incredibly inspiring,” he beams. “After training was over, he would never walk across a pitch to save himself time and effort. Pitches were sacred, only used for playing football, never to just walk across. I have never experienced such feeling of perfection as I did while I was an Arsenal player.”
Those senses of both tradition and discipline have possibly been things that he has since taken with him into his promising career as a football coach.
For a player who never so much as pulled a muscle until he was the grand old age of 35, diet was very important. And that was another area in which Wenger left his mark. “Learning what is best to eat and when it’s best to eat is something that really helps a player,” Vivas says. “Everyone knows this now, but Wenger was once in the minority.”
Still, despite learning so much and feeling so at home at one of English football’s most famous clubs, Vivas didn’t know how to prove he was capable of earning a place in the first XI. “I had to fight Lee Dixon for my place, and I would think: ‘How on Earth am I going to win my spot if there are no practice matches?’ All exercises included the ball, in reduced spaces, four goalmouths, everything precisely timed – something that I had never done before but, again, something that today is very common.
“Now, as a manager, I understand that this is the best way to analyse exactly how a player is doing. But as a player, almost 20 years ago, I didn’t understand how to prove I was good enough for the first team if we never actually played any games. I did not understand that I was part of a coaching revolution, but I was.
“Arsenal still had a backline with a decade of experience – Dixon, Adams, Martin Keown and Nigel Winterburn – but from then on it was mostly foreign players who joined the Gunners. Football was changing rapidly and Wenger was the one who saw it all coming.”
Physical on the pitch
Ex-Quilmes manager Carlos Trullet, when discussing Vivas’s aggressive side, described him as being like 'a bag of cats with a dog inside'
Playing so infrequently in north London was the source of great frustration, and with the risk of his work permit not being renewed, he opted to make a loan move to Celta Vigo. While on a visit to Argentina, Thierry Henry once admitted that during Arsenal training sessions, one of the most dangerous things that a player could ever do was attempt to pull off a one-two against Nelson Vivas.
“That’s true,” Vivas laughs. “You can give the ‘one’ but you’d hardly ever get the ‘two’. I remember Freddie Ljungberg baptised me ‘The Kicking Machine’. I have always done everything to try to win. I’d ask for yellow cards for the opposition players and then inside the dressing room they would nag at me, because that’s a lack of sportsmanship. Even during the training sessions, I got knocks and cuts. Don’t forget the group I trained with had Adams, Keown, Vieira...”
Ex-Quilmes manager Carlos Trullet, when discussing Vivas’s aggressive side, described him as being like “a bag of cats with a dog inside”. That aggression was always a key part of Vivas’s game, but it’s also what made him feel extremely uncomfortable when he entered the Inter dressing room for the first time – it was full of South Americans he had managed to either punch, elbow or kick in continental competitions down the years.
“First I bump into Ronaldo, and I apologise to him for a kick I had given him against Brazil. Then along comes Alvaro Recoba, and I also have to say sorry to him for another incident in a match against Uruguay.”
It was almost as embarrassing during his brief loan period at Celta Vigo when he was talking to one of his new team-mates, Goran Djorovic. “I once played against Argentina in Mar del Plata with Yugoslavia and there was this animal that hit me with a horrific tackle,” the Serbian told Vivas. “Er, that was me,” the defender was forced to reply. “He was right, too – it was a terrible tackle,” he confesses.