Support Henry finds at Arsenal remains missing at home in France
Thierry Henry is beloved at Arsenal but less so back in his native France.
Ten minutes. That’s how long it took Thierry Henry to write the latest incredible chapter of his Arsenal career. Returning four years after his last game, and exactly one month after shedding tears at the unveiling of the statue in his honor outside the Emirates Stadium, Henry scored the winning goal in Arsenal’s FA Cup third round win over Leeds United.
“This has to be the story of the season!” declared the TV commentator calling the game, and sure enough, the English press went into overdrive.
Most headlines reprised the “King Henry the Second” theme while The Times of London put Henry on its front page, with the headline, “Henry restores va-va-voom.”
It was hard not to get swept along. Not only had Henry scored, something Andrei Arshavin has managed once in 18 league appearances and Marouane Chamakh once in 15 appearances (most as substitutes) this season; not only was it a crucial winning goal; but it gave the team, the fans, and the whole club, an enormous lift when it seemed to need it most. Henry’s celebration was pure drama; he repeatedly beat the club badge on his chest and ran around the perimeter of the pitch to embrace coach Arsene Wenger.
“I don’t want this to be about me, it’s about this young team,” Henry told reporters after the match. He talked about the honor of now being the fan whose dream of scoring for his club came true. He even name-checked Nicholas Yennaris, an 18-year-old defender making his second senior appearance.
Despite the celebration in England, his words rang hollow in France, where he is admired for being France’s best player when it won Euro 2000; rated for scoring more international goals, 51, than any other France player; and respected for marking the history of the Premier League with his record 226 (now 227) goals for Arsenal.
But he is also seen as manipulative, image-obsessed and arrogant. In fact, Henry might be unique in sports for the total disconnect between his perception at home and abroad. Take the minor story of his tears at that statue unveiling; in England, it was seen as honest emotion out of love for the club; in France, a calculated ploy to further cement his place in the history of Arsenal and English football.
“This aspect of his life is far less apparent in his English career than his French career,” Philippe Auclair, a French writer currently working on a biography of Henry, told SI.com. “There are far fewer Henry fans in France than there are in England, people have a problem with him there.”
“Henry has always been into construction;his construction and that of his myth,” wrote Gregory Schneider in Liberation last week. “He’s always been a master of words, sometimes using a subtlety and an art of the semi-truth which one cannot help but respect. He plays a role, but seeing as he also plays the role of Thierry Henry, there is something credible about it.”
Two moments in Henry’s career changed his relationship with the French public. The first came in November 2009, when Henry used his hand to set up William Gallas for a crucial goal in France’s 2010 World Cup qualifying playoff victory over Republic of Ireland. As much as the goal itself, Henry’s wild celebration was deemed offensive by French fans.
Raymond Domenech, the coach, whose tactics and training methods Henry had publicly questioned during the qualifying campaign, was unpopular and the team was unloved. The image of Henry commiserating with Irish defender Richard Dunne after the final whistle was used as an example of him being two-faced (and proof that in this case, Henry really couldn’t win either way). On RMC radio that night, French pundits even wanted the team to withdraw from the World Cup.
Things might have been better if it had. In South Africa, France became a global laughingstock after going on strike in protest at Nicolas Anelka’s suspension from the team. Henry may not have been captain but he was still a senior player, and could have called off the strike at any time. “If he had got off the bus, everyone would have followed him, and he would have got some credit, but he chose not to,” said Auclair.
Instead, Henry flew from the disaster in Knysna straight to a meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy at the Élysée Palace to discuss what happened (hardly the behavior of someone who is not a leader). When he gave his only interview about the protest, to France TV’s Le Grand Journal, Henry refused to explain the reasons behind the strike and, crucially, did not apologize on behalf of his teammates.
Before then, there had already been stories about Henry’s Machiavellian streak. At Euro ’04, he allegedly asked coach Jaques Santini to drop his friend and ex-Monaco teammate David Trezeguet. At the ’06 World Cup, he spent time in training with Franck Ribéry, the team’s breakout player, during the session that was open to the media while, as soon as the cameras were switched off, left Ribéry on his own. “Ribery, who hadn’t understood the media were the true audience for this show, had to run after Henry with the ball under his arm for over 20 meters to catch up,” wrote Liberation. At the same tournament, several journalists walked away from a mixed-zone interview after he claimed credit for Ribery’s quarterfinal goal against Spain, even though he was offside at the time.
Henry had been the natural choice to replace Zinedine Zidane as the team’s ‘technical leader’ following his international retirement after Euro ’04; but the shadow of Zidane, sanctified in France ever since his two goals in the 1998 World Cup final, hung over Henry, even when he was at his peak for Arsenal. Zidane was still playing for Real Madrid, and producing outpourings of acclaim after the slightest flick even while Henry was breaking records at Arsenal. You could understand Henry’s frustration. With France struggling to qualify for ’06 World Cup, Henry had to pretend to be pleased at Zidane’s return from retirement; and when France reached the final, it was Zidane who pulled the strings, and was named Player of the Tournament.
“Despite the cool image he tries to portray, at the heart of Henry is a guy who needs to feel loved,” Canal Plus presenter Darren Tulett, who has interviewed Henry frequently, told SI.com. “He needs that affection and I think it has genuinely hurt him to not be considered highly in his homeland.
Yes, he’s always wanted it to be about him, but why not? He’s extremely talented and it often has been about him.”
This love-hate relationship with the French press is mutual. Henry is alleged to have reacted furiously when a French journalist caught up with him after a game in New York and asked him about his new beard. On the other hand, he allowed Sky Sports presenter Georgie Thompson to spend a week with him before the MLS season began, and she interviewed him in his apartment, at a basketball game and at an Elton John concert. (Incidentally, that week ended badly for Henry. Although the New York Red Bulls won their opening match, Henry missed a penalty and limped off with a hamstring injury no Hollywood ending there.)
On Sunday, Arsenal came from 0-2 down to beat Aston Villa 3-2 in the FA Cup fourth round. Henry only played the last few minutes but had already made his presence known: he just happened to be warming up level with the penalty spot from which Robin van Persie scored the winning goal, and his embrace following the captain’s successful spot-kick provided another striking image. In fact, he has not done much since that goal against Leeds — he gave the ball away for Swansea’s winner in its 3-2 success over Arsenal a fortnight ago, and then criticised fans for booing the team — but that strike alone was enough to justify his surprise return to the playing staff.
“Henry’s goal against Leeds was like laying the final stone of his myth,” wrote Schneider. “But that myth is not worth the reality, which is an extraordinary ability to understand football in its larger sense and to adapt to everything.” That everything, according to Schneider, includes Henry’s adaptation to the Premier League, his relationship with agent Darren Dein, son of former Arsenal vice-president David Dein, his arrival in a Barcelona dressing-room where Samuel Eto’o ruled the roost, and even his uneasy relationship with Zidane. “All of that deserved a statue and those tears, which we will never know what they were hiding.”
Ben Lyttleton has written about French football for various publications. He edited an oral history of the European Cup, Match of My Life: European Cup Finals, which was published in 2006.
Via Sports Illustrated CNN