Listen to this article
Thierry Henry is no stranger to making headlines. As the captain of Arsenal Football Club and the most consistently brilliant player in England’s Premier League, he would probably expect no different or no less. But things got a little out of hand last week. Last Friday he was left out of the Arsenal team for the big derby with north London rivals Tottenham Hotspur. Henry left the training ground angry because, though struggling with an injury, he hates not being able to play.
The next day a “bust-up” with his manager and fellow Frenchman Arsène Wenger was reported. Henry decided to correct these stories by speaking to the press on Saturday morning, a move that, together with his front-row appearance at the stadium in support of the team that afternoon, generated another wave of stories about what was going on between player and manager. And so on...
With the air of a man who has occupied a lot of newspaper column inches in the past week, Henry picks up a copy of the Weekend FT and glances at the cover story, featuring the launch of the newspaper’s seasonal charity campaign to raise money for the education of girls in Africa. “That is the kind of paper they should have at our training ground,” he exclaims. “That is a great front page. That is going to explain something different than someone has cut his hair, fell down the stairs or put his finger up his nose.”
I bet you’re thinking he says that to all the journalists. Possibly, though his frustration with the media circus that has put up its tents on his lawn in recent days seems real enough. For someone often characterised as laid-back to the point of insouciant, it is ironic that Henry’s response to this type of speculation is not the cartoonish Gallic shrug he often produces on the football field. Instead he comes out fighting. He has in the past phoned journalists directly to complain about inaccuracies in stories about him. “I would say I am pretty laid-back,” he says, “but it’s true that when I have to make a point, I always feel the need.”
Incident defused, both manager and player are agreed that after playing about 60 games this year, Henry needs a break to shake off the niggling injuries that have frustrated his season so far. “When you do stuff, people expect you to do it all the time,” he says. “If you had a bad game, people won’t talk about maybe the amazing seven years you had before or the amazing game you had even three days before, they will talk about the game you just played,” he says.
Not that he expects to adjust easily to his time out. “I stopped last season for a month or so and we were having a bad run and I felt like I was letting my team down. Whether you are winning or losing, you always want to be around. It’s like sometimes when you are with your friends and they said, ‘We had a great night’ and you think, ‘It’s always when I don’t come out you have a great night!’ ”
There have been plenty of great nights in Henry’s career playing for Arsenal and France but this year’s Champions League final (when Arsenal lost to Barcelona) and World Cup final (when France were beaten on penalties by Italy) are not among them. What did it feel like to play in football’s two biggest games and to lose both? Ruefully, he explains: “The one that will always stay in my mind is the final of the Champions League because I’ve never won it and that is one thing that is missing. But a final will always stick in your mind whether you like it or not – you might have forgotten about it for two years, then one day you are sitting at home nice and relaxed and they show it on the television and you remember it again. But sometimes it’s not bad to remember the bad moments.”
Henry speaks almost as quickly as he runs and he could talk the hind legs off a defender. “I always need people to understand what I want to really say,” he explains. “To make myself clear and not be misinterpreted or misquoted. It’s quite important because if you want to put a message out there it has to be real and from you.”
These days the messages he chooses to put across are not always about playing the game. In 2004, Spain’s national team coach, Luis Aragonés, attempted to motivate José Antonio Reyes, then an Arsenal clubmate of Henry’s, by telling him to show he was “better than that black shit”. Initially Henry observed a dignified silence – abuse was not new to him, like other black players he has been spat on and abused by crowds in Europe for years. But when the football authorities failed to take meaningful action, he collaborated with Nike on the Stand Up Speak Up campaign against racism in football, which raised money for anti-racism groups through the sale of entwined black and white wristbands. In 2005, Time Magazine voted the Frenchman one of its European Heroes of the year for “using his hero status to fight bigotry in the sport”.
Henry insisted then that this was not going to be the end of his involvement in combating racism. This week in London, he joined forces with US fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger to launch a limited edition collection, all proceeds from which will go to Henry’s new charity, the One 4 All Foundation (14 being his Arsenal shirt number). The foundation, funded also by Henry’s money, will tackle racism and social equality, chiefly through children’s sporting and educational projects.
For Henry, born to Caribbean parents in Paris and raised in the south-western suburb of Les Ulis, these concerns are literally close to home. How does he think his foundation can contribute to those Parisian suburbs where racial tension and disenchantment erupted into violence last year?
“What happened in France is a shame,” he says, “but in any country we all have the same problem sometimes to accept different religions or different ways of being dressed and to live with that. And that is why I want to target unprivileged kids because sometimes they need the help most.”
He aims to start by building playgrounds and basketball courts in England and France. “I was born in 1977 and the town I come from was built in ’77, so I had the chance of having good facilities if I wanted to let my anger out – somewhere to play football or basketball. Of course, it is also very important to have good schools and good parents. Unfortunately, when you live in a neighbourhood like this you have to understand that some people don’t have this and that, even if they do, unfortunately they do not always have the possibility – financially or materially – to help their kids.”
Does he find it frustrating that such initiatives have to come from footballers and fashion designers rather than from governments? “I’m doing what I feel like I need to do. I am not interested in saying to anybody, ‘You should have done it’. What I am happy about is someone like Tommy Hilfiger coming on board and setting up a range from which they are going to give 100 per cent of what they get.”
He says he feels the need to give something back. But isn’t it a bit early? And anyway, one might argue that his goals and uniquely graceful playing style have given back enough enjoyment already. He is not so sure. “For me, what I have given back on the pitch is not enough for people to be better. For 90 minutes it might help but then, after they get back home, it hasn’t really. So it’s important that materially I can do something.”
He explains that when you are young you have to do your own stuff but, at 29, with a wife and a daughter, things change. “You have a wife and a baby and you stop, you open your eyes and see other things. And for me it came just like that. It was just a matter of discovering it.”
Does the desire to contribute in other areas mean he sees life after football as life outside football? “I will always stay around football because that’s my life in a way. But I don’t know about being a manager because I don’t know if I would like to be under that kind of pressure after I finish playing. When you are a boss, you are under even more pressure because you have five bad games and you are out. When you are a player, you have five bad games and you are still in the team.”
Unless, of course, you are injured. So will he watch his team-mates play against Chelsea this weekend? “I don’t think that me being in the stand watching the game at Chelsea will be a clever idea,” he laughs. “If we score I will have to get up so I will stay home and watch it properly!”