A touch of class from France

A touch of class from France

Talking football to Thierry Henry is like 'talking to Albert Einstein about physics'

If retirement is near for Thierry Henry - and he is not yet saying it is - he will follow Derek Jeter as the next great athlete to leave New York, minus the season-long goodbyes and parting gifts.

Even as assessments of his career edge toward farewell, and he is celebrated as one of the great international strikers of his generation and perhaps the most skilled player ever in Major League Soccer, Henry, 37, deflects individual praise for collective ambition.“I can’t talk about it,” Henry said on Friday of his future as the Red Bulls prepared to travel to DC United for Saturday’s second leg of an Eastern Conference semifinal, holding a 2-0 goal advantage. “It’s playoff time. The focus should be on the team and nothing else.”

While David Beckham brought glamour and celebrity to MLS and helped the LA Galaxy win two titles, Henry brought something equally valuable: credibility at a crucial period of expansion, new stadiums and enhanced television and multiplatform media deals.He has won about all there is to win: a World Cup (1998) and a European championship (2000) with France, the Champions League (2009) with Barcelona, the Premier League (2002, 2004) with Arsenal.

A statue of Henry’s likeness stands, or, more accurately, kneels outside Emirates Stadium in London. There, the discussion is whether he is the greatest striker ever in the Premier League or simply the greatest player.

“The credibility he brought us is just not something we could have achieved without him,” Don Garber, the MLS commissioner, said on Friday. “When I travel around the world, there isn’t a soccer person in any country that doesn’t know that Thierry Henry is playing in the United States in Major League Soccer.”

In July, when Arsenal visited the United States for an exhibition match against the Red Bulls, manager Arsene Wenger told this story: When he moved Henry from the wing to center forward, Henry cautioned, “Look, I can’t score goals.”

Yet, with elegant technique, anticipation, touch, composure and intelligence, especially intelligence, Henry became Arsenal’s career leader with 228 goals and France’s with 51.“For somebody who can’t score goals,” Wenger told reporters with amusement, “he has done quite well.”

In truth, though, Henry has felt a bit constrained by his reputation as a goal scorer, the way an actor can feel typecast by a great role. Why is it, he wondered, that the top scorer receives a trophy in the world’s best leagues, but not the leader in assists?

While Henry has scored 52 goals in 132 regular-season and playoff games with the Red Bulls over four-plus seasons, he has also delivered 47 assists. In the first leg against DC United, he set up both goals, one with a delicious backheel pass, the other with a 35-yard chip that was a wonder of vision, control and economy of movement. It seems no coincidence that Bradley Wright-Phillips of the Red Bulls, who had searched until this season to find his way, tied the MLS regular-season record with 27 goals.

From his childhood in the suburbs of Paris, Henry said, he operated on this principal: “We have to score,” not “I have to score.”

“Right from the start, you have been told you have to share the glory, share the moments, share the ball,” Henry said. “The pass is more important than the goal. Because if you don’t pass well, the ball doesn’t reach there.”

The highlight of his career, one might reasonably think, came when France won the 1998 World Cup at home. The team bus drove onto the Champs-Élysées into a crowd of 1 million revelers, said to be the largest celebration in Paris since the City of Light was liberated during World War II.

The ethnic diversity of Les Bleus, as the French national team is known, became a repudiation of the anti-immigration stance of the ascending far-right National Front Party. Riding on the team bus, Henry said, felt “almost unreal.” From the place he grew up, “you don’t go to the Champs-Élysées every day.”

Now he was triumphant. He had won the World Cup at Stade de France, so close to home that his family arrived at the final by train.

“To be on that bus, with everybody there, with the cup and what it represented, people coming from everywhere, what France is, was a great moment,” Henry said. But his greatest moment? No. He is more fond of the origin of his success than its culmination, of the eager and unfinished teenager who made his professional debut for Monaco in the French league at 17.

A career does not travelin a straight line but can bend and dip like a free kick. There have been bad moments, too, for Henry, none worse than his deliberate and decisive handball that put France into the 2010 World Cup ahead of Ireland. Some labeled him a cheat. Briefly, he has said, he thought of quitting.

His defense has been this: He handled the ball, but he was not the referee.

A players strike and a feckless effort by Les Bleus during that 2010 World Cup brought condemnation and government inquiry at home. France’s sports minister at the time called the players’ behaviour a “moral disaster.” Henry retired from international football and soon joined the Red Bulls. It has been a restorative move. Sure, he has lost some pace at 37, but who hasn’t? And some team-mates have found his demanding style to be withering. But coach Mike Petke recently said that talking to Henry about football was “like talking to Albert Einstein about physics.”

On Friday, Petke elaborated: “Thierry is the most intelligent soccer mind I’ve ever been around. He sees things three or four steps ahead.”