Interview, Nelson Vivas: From Arsenal "kicking machine" to Estudiantes gaffer – and a lot more in between

Nelson Vivas
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Trouble in Buenos Aires

That experience was particularly difficult, since the crowd’s patience lasted seconds

Yet maybe Vivas’s most infamous altercation was one when he did not actually do anything wrong. “People on the streets still come up to me and tell me that I punched Rivaldo – but I didn’t do it,” he insists, correcting a popular fallacy within his homeland.

“We were playing at home against Brazil, we had just conceded a goal, I had just been booked, and then Rivaldo came flying in with a sliding tackle that I just managed to avoid. My instant reaction when he stood up was to punch him. I clenched my fist and started to swing, but I managed to hold it back at the very last moment. I was caught on camera, so lots of people saw,” he says.

This episode is eerily reminiscent to Paolo Di Canio’s near-punch on Winterburn after the Italian, playing for Sheffield Wednesday at the time, had been dismissed for pushing referee Paul Alcock. Of course, Vivas was on the scene, right next to the ref.

“Not long after I had signed for Inter, I was in the lift going up to my new apartment and Rivaldo strolled in – he was playing for Milan. It was just the two of us alone inside the lift. We didn’t say a word to each other. He lived in the same building! One day, I discovered my son playing with a new friend, and it was Rivaldo’s son. Can you believe it?”

Vivas loved the earlier stages of his career in football, but the enjoyment waned as the years passed. “All the people cursing at me left a mark,” he says, with his mind firmly on the abuse he suffered as a former Boca man joining River Plate in 2003.

“That experience was particularly difficult, since the crowd’s patience lasted seconds. I knew those were the rules of the game so I accepted what they said to me, but if someone dared to say anything on the street, even if it was an argument in traffic, I would get out of my car and start chasing the other car on foot. The criticism left me psychologically damaged, I didn’t even dare open any of the papers to see the rating I was getting.”

River Plate

The ferocity of River Plate's rivalry with Boca Juniors was too much for Vivas

Overcoming problems

The biggest help came when Simeone offered him the role of assistant manager at Estudiantes, which has enabled Vivas to once again focus all his obsessions on football

Managing his emotions has often been an issue for Vivas, and he admits to having broken doors in the majority of the houses that he has lived in, generally out of frustration. Vivas hung up his boots in 2003, after his son returned home from school one day with a drawing of the entire family, except his father: it was such a blow that it forced him into retirement. Several days before, he had reacted badly to a nutmeg during a training session and slapped a team-mate. He made a brief return with Quilmes, but then retired permanently in 2005.

Vivas has had some problems taming his demons – particularly since his second retirement from playing. Without the structure of training or any instructions from his coaches, he suddenly found himself with lots of hours to fill, and developed OCD.

“It was probably pretty hard to live with me,” he says. “All the yoghurts in the fridge needed to be organised in a certain way, just like in the supermarket. My clothes were sorted by colour, and all of them folded to exactly the same width. The car always had to be parked with the wheels a certain distance away from the curb, and perfectly aligned with each other. Otherwise I’d pull out and park again and again. I felt frustrated if something was out of place or not in the way I wanted it to be.”

Nelson Vivas

Adjusting to retirement from playing wasn't easy for Vivas

He has since overcome some of these problems with the help of therapy, although some remain. The biggest help perhaps came when Simeone offered him the role of assistant manager at Estudiantes, which has enabled Vivas to once again focus all his obsessions on football; analysing the opponents, planning training sessions and creating tactical systems.

“Simeone jokes that he prevented me from committing suicide, but we were all very obsessive and hard workers and we had a great time,” he says. “I prepared lots of notebooks with annotations. When Diego decided to move abroad, to Catania in 2011, I could not go with him. My daughter was two, I had just divorced and I didn’t want to stop seeing her. What he has managed to achieve with Atletico Madrid has been remarkable. He is undoubtedly one of the best managers in the world at the moment.”

Success in the dugout

The first time Vivas branched out on his own in management, at Quilmes, it ended rather badly – and very quickly. He punched a fan after his first game, with the scrap caught by television cameras. “It was a fan that had been cursing me for the whole 90 minutes, from behind the fence,” Vivas explains. “So I reacted.”

He was summoned to the club president’s office and then sacked on the spot. “It was a difficult moment,” he reflects. “I was in a bad place, but suddenly everything just clicked. I started reading about meditation, Buddhism, and found the serenity I needed to take the next step. I’m very different now, more serene.”

Last year, Estudiantes sporting director Agustin Alayes offered him the chance to coach the reserves. “With all the managers I’d worked for, and all the experience I had, I thought it was a good way to try to leave a mark on players who were developing.”

One thing led to another and Vivas was soon appointed first-team manager by the club’s president, Juan Sebastian Veron (who returned as a player, aged 41, in December 2016 to fulfil a promise made about executive box sales). “Equilibrium is a word that I am using quite a lot. It is the word I would tattoo on myself if I had to pick one. Equilibrium means not getting over-excited when you win, not feeling a tragedy when you lose, being able to cope with the team’s problems and issues with serenity. Equilibrium is not trying to impose your ideas, but to convince the players to apply them. It’s a negotiation. Sometimes you have to give in.

“I’m learning. It’s an honour to be compared with Diego Simeone, Mauricio Pochettino and [current River Plate boss] Marcelo Gallardo – all players of my generation – but I’m remaining balanced; I’m only starting. In Argentina, you win one football match and are told you are the best, but then you lose one match and are forced to believe that you are the worst,” he says, underlining exactly why he is not getting overly carried away with his early success.

After everything he’s seen in the game, Vivas could be forgiven for being happy that, at last, the stories are about him.

This feature originally appeared in the March 2017 issue of FourFourTwo. Subscribe!

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