Born in Senegal in the Christian Cape Verdian community, Vieira's family moved to Dreux when he was aged 8; he did not return to Senegal until 2003. Vieira first played for AS Cannes, where he made his debut at the age of 17 and captained the team aged only 19 Soon after that, in the summer of 1995, he was snapped up by Italian giants A.C. Milan, though he mainly stayed in the reserves and only made two appearances for the first team
In September 1996, the incoming Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger asked for him to be bought from A.C. Milan before he took up his position. Vieira was signed for £3.5 million, a figure which would be deemed a bargain in years to come. His height, stamina and physical strength meant he settled in England quickly, while his composure and the quality of his passing meant he became an integral part of Wenger's stylish attacking side. Forming a powerful midfield partnership with compatriot Emmanuel Petit, Vieira won the Premiership and FA Cup Double in 1998, his first full season at the club. That summer, he was called up to France's 1998 World Cup squad.
Vieira's earlier years at Arsenal were beset by disciplinary problems - in 2000-01 he was sent off twice in two consecutive matches (the opening matches of the season), though after returning he did not receive another card for 28 matches. In all he has been sent off twelve times in his career (nine times with Arsenal and once each with Juventus, France and Internazionale).
Vieira would go on to win Euro 2000 with France, as well as a second Double with Arsenal in 2002. After Tony Adams's retirement in 2002, Vieira (already vice-captain) became club captain, since which his disciplinary problems cooled significantly. Though he missed Arsenal's 2003 FA Cup final win with injury, Vieira lifted the trophy jointly with captain for the day David Seaman.
In 2003-04 at Arsenal, he captained the side on an historic unbeaten season in the Premier League. At the beginning of this campaign he was in and out of the side because of a hamstring injury, with Ray Parlour replacing him in the side. However, Vieira returned for the Champions League match against Lokomotiv Moscow, with the Gunners winning 2-0 and qualifying for the 1st Knockout round. At the end of this season Vieira was heavily linked with moves to Real Madrid and Chelsea who were reportedly ready to offer around £30 million for his services. Then in the 2005 FA Cup Final he scored the winning kick in a penalty shoot-out with his final kick in Arsenal colours, after a 0-0 draw with Manchester United. In total, Vieira played 407 times for Arsenal and scored 34 times.
He returned to Arsenal for one game on July 22, 2006 in a testimonial for Dennis Bergkamp as one of the Arsenal legends against Ajax legends. Despite his departure, Vieira has remained a favourite among Arsenal fans, and there is a picture of him among 14 other past and present Arsenal greats in "The Armoury", at Arsenal's new Emirates Stadium.
In his time at Arsenal, Vieira engaged in many key individual battles to help his team, most notably against his fierce rival Roy Keane who possessed similar qualities to Vieira. The roots of this rivalry were partly due to both players' competitiveness and also the growing rivalry between Arsenal and Manchester United who consistently battled each other for the Premier League title.
Vieira's starring performances for Arsenal earned the attention of several major clubs abroad, as well as an approach from Manchester United. At the close of the 2002-03 and 2003-04 seasons, he was strongly linked with a move to Spanish superpower Real Madrid. It was also reported that despite Arsenal's Premiership and FA Cup victories (in addition to winning the World Cup and European Championship, all before the age of 25), Vieira was frustrated by his club's lack of continental success and the UEFA Champions League was the one honour that eluded him. Viera had considered leaving during Arsenal's trophy drought in 2000 and 2001, and again in 2004 when Arsenal's board opted to continue their policy of scouting for young talent rather than shopping in the transfer market.
Madrid reportedly offered Arsenal £23 million for him, so he could fill the role of the departed Claude Makelele in the holding midfielder position, which was reluctantly accepted. However at the last moment after much deliberation Vieira decided to stay at the club where he made his name. Others suggest that the deal failed because Madrid president Florentino Pérez had refused to pay high wages for defensive players. A year later, Vieira did move away from Highbury. Arsenal accepted a bid of £13.7m from Italian giants Juventus on July 14, 2005, and Vieira agreed a five-year contract with the Serie A side the following day. In his autobiography, he cited the main reason for his leaving Arsenal as the board's "neutral" position over the Juventus bid. One of the reasons for his transfer was also the emergence of teenager Cesc Fàbregas, who had played in place of Vieira when the latter was injured.
The then Juventus coach Fabio Capello used Vieira in a midfield consisting of Brazilian Emerson and Czech Pavel Nedvěd. He helped Juventus to record their best ever start to a league season. Despite his performances dipping as the result of a persistent groin injury and a reported training ground bust-up with team mate Zlatan Ibrahimović, Vieira helped Juventus retain the Italian Championship.
In a twist of fate, Vieira returned to Highbury on March 28, 2006 to play against Arsenal in the quarter-finals of the UEFA Champions League. Arsenal won 2-0 on aggregate, scoring twice in the first leg. Vieira received a yellow card in the first leg match at Highbury and was suspended for the return leg on April 5, 2006. During the first leg he was the subject of a strong tackle by former club and national team mate Robert Pires. Vieira was left crestfallen as Pires regained possession and Arsenal attacked, scoring the first goal of the tie through Cesc Fàbregas. Pires humorously quipped that it was the first time in 13 years he had got the better of Vieira physically.After the match, newspapers and reporters said that Cesc Fabregas totally out-classed Viera in every midfield department.
Juventus were stripped of their 2005-06 title (as well as the 2004-05 title) after it was revealed they were involved in a match-fixing scandal. Juventus were relegated to Serie B and deducted 17 points by the Italian Football Federation for their involvement, prompting many of the club's major stars to move elsewhere. After press speculation linking him to various clubs, including Arsenal and Manchester United, on August 2, 2006 Vieira officially signed a 4 year-deal for Internazionale in a deal reported to be worth €9.5m, which was less than half the €20m fee Juventus had paid just 12 months prior. In his first season at Inter, he added to his impressive trophy cabinet, with the Italian Super Cup (scoring a brace in that game) as well as the 2006-07 Serie A title.
While at Arsenal, he made his debut for France, in 1997 against the Netherlands. Vieira was part of the France squad in the 1998 FIFA World Cup. He came on as a substitute in the final against Brazil, and set up Emmanuel Petit for France's third goal in a 3-0 win.He, with the rest of the squad, received Légion d'Honneur, France's highest decoration in 1998.
He subsequently played as a first choice midfield player in France's successful campaign in Euro 2000, which they won, beating Italy in the final. He also played in all three games in the FIFA World Cup 2002, in which France were elimted in the group stage, failing to score a goal. He was injured and missed France's defeat to Greece at Euro 2004.
Vieira was appointed national team captain on Zinedine Zidane's retirement from international football. Nonetheless, he and veteran defender Lilian Thuram were instrumental in convincing Zidane to end his retirement and help the flagging campaign to qualify for the 2006 FIFA World Cup. Vieira even handed back the captaincy of the team to Zidane.
On June 23, 2006, his birthday 30th, Vieira took the captain's armband for the match in place of the suspended Zidane, whom he shared the birthday with, scoring the first goal when France defeated Togo 2-0 in the group stages of the FIFA World Cup 2006; Vieira set up Thierry Henry for France's second. This win helped France advance to the knockout stages, coming second behind Switzerland, and it prolonged Zidane's international career. In the round of sixteen, Vieira scored the second goal in France's 3-1 defeat of Spain; France went on to beat favourites Brazil 1-0 in the quarter-finals, and Portugal by the same score in the semi-finals, which gave them a place in the final against Italy. Vieira was one of the best midfielders at the tournament with a string of fine dominant performances. Vieira has received criticism in the past over his international performances, with both fans and pundits commenting that he does not play for France as he did for Arsenal, Thierry Henry has also received similar criticism in the past. Having played in every match up to the final, Vieira started the match but was substituted due to injury in the second half, likely sustained when he collided with Italian defender Fabio Cannavaro. Italy won 5-3 on penalties after the game finished 1-1 after extra time. As of November 23, 2006 Vieira has appeared 100 times for France, scoring 6 goals.
On August 5, 2006 Vieira was reappointed captain of the French national team for the Euro 2008 qualifying campaign.