There have only been a couple of occasions in modern times when you could credibly claim that the most gifted footballer in the world was earning his living in England.
George Best, for a while in the late Sixties, and Thierry Henry, now.
That Henry did not win 2003’s World Footballer of the Year award (it went to his compatriot Zinedine Zidane for the second time) was considered by many, and not just in north London, a minor scandal. That he is already well on the way to winning the 2004 award should be taken as given.
For a year or so Premiership defenders have been anxious to explain that Henry has become impossible to defend against. Battle-hardened managers routinely pause to marvel at the way the Arsenal player has casually dismantled their best-laid plans. According to Blackburn’s Graeme Souness, for example, ‘the only way to stop him is with an AK-47â€.
If Henry’s reputation has been enhanced week by week in the Premiership (in which he has just completed a century of goals, and in which Arsenal remain unbeaten this season), it was sealed across Europe by his performance in Milan in November when he personally un-did the most uncompromising of defences to keep his team in the Champions League.
Henry scored two and made two goals that night against Inter in the world’s style capital. The following morning, responding to the home team’s 5-1 defeat, one Italian newspaper carried the headline ‘Kneel down before the Kingâ€ to describe Henry’s play. Another simply ran a large picture of Edvard Munch’s The Scream to explain the emotions of Milan supporters.
For a long while now no match report from Highbury has been complete without the words ‘sublimeâ€ and ‘poetryâ€ attaching themselves to Henry, often in the same sentence, but Arsenal’s small army of literary followers still struggle for superlatives to define their hero.
Author Nick Hornby suggests simply that with the Frenchman playing ‘it’s a privilege to have a season ticket, because he does something extraordinary every single game — a run, a trick, a burst of speed, and usually a goal. If he were a junior player, you’d conclude that he needed to move up a level, but there isn’t anywhere for him to go.â€
Melvyn Bragg, another Highbury regular, concurs: ‘I like it best of all when he stops or appears to come to a halt in front of two or even three defenders. They freeze; he thinks. Then he lopes off in a different direction and they, as it were, stand and scratch their heads at the invisible man. He’s so good he makes you laugh at how good he is.â€
Sir Frank Kermode, Emeritus Professor of English at Cambridge and a Gooner of 60 years standing, offers only that he is ‘clearly indispensable to a wonderful teamâ€, while when I ask the poet laureate, Andrew Motion, if Henry has ever moved him to verse he confesses that ‘the sublime THâ€ defies iambics. ‘So far all I’ve come up with is a lot of appreciative ooohs and aaahs…â€
Perhaps the nearest anyone has come to putting the Henry magic into words is the ‘va-va-voomâ€ of the Renault advertisements. The phrase had been used in a previous advert for Renault, but when two of the creative team behind the ad, Gerry Moira and Ira Joseph, both Arsenal fans, watched Henry they felt they saw the slogan made flesh.
‘It was just this contemporary Frenchness, this effortless style and pace and a kind of detached self-confidence,â€ Joseph says.
The first advert, in which Henry himself tries to define the quality that animates him, was scripted only loosely.
‘It was odd,â€ Joseph says. ‘Football fans like to think footballers are as inspired and intelligent off the field as they are on it. Rarely is that the case. But it did seem so with Henry. You go to most clients and say we’ve got a footballer we’d like to use to sell your crown jewels and they might be hesitant, but as soon as the people at Renault met Thierry they could see he was perfect.â€
‘From my own point of view,â€ adds Joseph, ‘as a black Briton, that felt like a real achievement. The two weeks we spent working with him were the most satisfying, creatively, of my life.â€
Many of Henry’s teammates are at pains to agree with this assessment. Henry exploded out of the great French side that won the World Cup in Paris in 1998, eclipsing Brazil in the final. The intelligence of that team came from Zidane, but the rush of power and pace was provided by Henry and his best friend, David Trezeguet, both just 20.
Like several of his teammates, Henry grew up in a rough suburb of Paris, before being groomed at the French football academy at Clairefontain. His family were from Guadeloupe, and he attributes half of his success to the values instilled in him by his father: of never settling for what you have, of refusing to let his talent be muscled out of games.
The rest goes to his ‘spiritual fatherâ€, ArsÃ¨ne Wenger, his manager at Arsenal. It was Wenger who gave him his league debut for Monaco at 17. And, crucially, it was Wenger who rescued Henry from the Italian team Juventus, which had snapped him up after the World Cup and destroyed his instincts by trying to make a wide midfield player of him. Wenger brought Henry back in from the wing to the focus of the attack.
For Arsenal followers this is one more example of the manager’s inspired leadership. As Hornby points out, there was general despair when Henry arrived to replace the petu-lant brilliance of Nicolas Anelka (who had taken his ego off to Madrid for Â£23-million): ‘He was so hopeless … My brother said we’d spent Â£10-million on the French Perry Groves [a prosaic Arsenal reserve]. His speed actually made things worse for him, because it constantly got him into positions where his ineptitude was revealed for all to see.â€
One effect of the transformation that followed, Hornby suggests, is that it stopped Arsenal fans ‘from judging any Wenger purchase, because it’s not possible to see what he sees, however long you’ve been watching footballâ€.
The singular fascination of the Premiership over the past few years has been to compare the management philosophies of Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson, the yin and yang of motivation. One pertinent point of difference is the manner in which they have treated their most charismatic players.
David Beckham, at least toward the end of his career at Manchester United, saw his efforts rewarded with routine bullying by Ferguson. At the heart of their disputes was Beckham’s ambition to play in the centre of the midfield rather than out on the margins, where he found it harder to influence games.
Ferguson refused to build the team around him, however, preferring the less flamboyant — and, perhaps, threatening — skills of Roy Keane and Paul Scholes. Beckham is now filling his preferred role to great effect in Madrid.
Wenger adopted a very different approach with Henry, moving him from the periphery of the side to its heart, allowing him to feel that the play was organised around him. He responded by making himself the consummate team player, in the manner of the great Dutch centre forwards Johan Cruyff and Marco van Basten, making as many goals as he scores.
‘I respect ArsÃ¨ne a lot,â€ Henry says of this maturing process. ‘He lets you lead your life.â€ That life, in Henry’s case, is a long way from the Premiership caricature of Footballers’ Wives.
Henry married his English model girlfriend Nicole Merry — with whom he starred in the Renault ad — last year. Rather than migrate out to the soccer suburbs of Hertfordshire they live in Hampstead in a contemporary Â£6-million minimalist house on the edge of the heath.
His teammates for Arsenal and France, Patrick Vieira and Robert Pires, are near neighbours. (Historians of London might find it appropriate that this trio plot their European campaigns from London’s most civilised cafÃ©s: General Charles de Gaulle once directed the Free French in a very different kind of resistance from his home round the corner.)
The persistent little enclave of Gallic inspiration also proves that even in football sometimes loyalty still reigns over more mercenary temptations.
With the arrival of Roman Abram-ovich and his roubles at Chelsea it looked as if the balance of footballing power in the capital might be shifting westwards. Henry was recently the subject of a Â£50-million bid from Chelsea. He and Arsenal laughed it away.
For all the riches on offer in Abramovich’s team, there is no doubt who most neutrals will tune in to watch: the player that his money cannot buy. —