It has been 28 years since a French team departed for a World Cup finals without Thierry Henry.
The nation’s failure to qualify for the 1990 and 1994 tournaments has much to do with that obviously, but when his countrymen board the plane for Brazil next month, the New York Red Bulls striker will instead be preparing to join up with the BBC as part of its World Cup commentary team during a two-week break for Major League Soccer.
Of course, Henry called time on his international career after the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, but given that one of sports’ biggest showcases is preparing to kick off once more, you could hardly blame him if he had a pang of regret having taken part in the last four tournaments.
“No,” he said Saturday after New York’s 2-0 Major League Soccer loss to Toronto FC. “I had a chance to win it, played in one final, played two bad World Cups, so it was what it was.”
The victory he refers to is France’s famous success in front of its own fans in 1998, capped by a 3-0 demolition of mighty Brazil, this year’s host nation, in the final in Paris. Despite being his team’s leading scorer in that tournament, Henry didn’t feature in that showpiece match, but he remembers the tournament in greater terms than just a sporting success.
Though he was only 20 at the time, the man who would go on to score 51 international goals 123 appearances looks back and realizes the unifying effect it had on his country. Despite being born in Paris, Henry himself has West Indian roots, while other key players in that team such as Zinedine Zidane and Marcel Desailly have Algerian and Ghanaian lineage respectively.
“That’s the beauty of our country I guess,” he said while being honoured by the Lycee Francais de New York earlier this year. “I know some people have difficulty to accept it, but that’s France right there. … “We did it altogether with all the diversity in the team and under one flag and I think that’s the most important thing.”
The victory was also the springboard to a glittering career with Arsenal and Barcelona, among others. Now 36, Henry knows he can’t play forever, and though he’s started 10 of the Red Bulls’ 14 MLS games this season, he has suffered with Achilles tendon injuries in recent years and is currently in the last year of his contract and non-committal about future plans.
A terse “I don’t know,” was his only response when asked if he’d just played his last game in Toronto on Saturday – New York’s only regular-season visit to BMO Field this year – but while he will continue to chase his and the Red Bulls’ first MLS Cup this season, he doesn’t agree that he needs to go out on top, with championship. “If you can finish on a high note, so be it,” he said previously.
That high note looks a considerable way off given the team’s defensive frailties so far this season. After giving up five goals a week ago in a 5-4 loss in Chicago, New York offered little resistance to Toronto’s Jermain Defoe-led attack on the weekend.
But while having team’s like Toronto undergoing expensive off-season makeovers may hamper Henry’s quest to add an MLS Cup winner’s medal to his already extensive collection, he admits that even watching a rival improve is a good for the North American game as a whole.
“Oh yeah, that’s the most important thing at the end of the day,” he said. “That was the aim of it at the beginning that every team can get better. Unfortunately for us they’re in the East, but that’s the type of thing you want if you’re in the league.”
However, the loss to TFC Saturday did little to take the gloss off his pride at seeing his beloved Arsenal finally end its long trophy drought earlier in the day with a 3-2 F.A. Cup final win over Hull City.
“It was nine years without a trophy, so that’s what you’ve got to stay with, and obviously everyone’s happy if you’re an Arsenal fan,” said a beaming Henry, who was still playing for the Gunners the last time the club had lifted silverware, at the 2005 F.A. Cup final. “But I was pretty happy with the win.”