Thierry Henry had more pressing matters to attend to before he could lose himself in his New York dreamscape [he was joining New York Red Bulls from Barcelona in the summer 2010], starting with his uneasy position within the French national team. How uneasy it was was demonstrated in the lead-up to the South African World Cup, when Raymond Domenech chose to play Henry from the bench in France's warm-up games against Costa Rica and Tunisia, in which the hitherto "captain for life" was a mere passenger.
In the first of these two encounters, in which Les Bleus actually showed a surprising degree of enterprise and imagination, the armband had been given to Patrice Evra – who’d kept it on when Thierry entered the fray in the second half. Domenech poo-poohed the idea that this was proof of Henry’s declining status within the squad. But more people would’ve been inclined to take the manager at his word if a French TV network hadn’t found out that he’d visited Thierry in Barcelona shortly before this game, in order to strike a deal that would preserve both men’s self-regard and ambitions.
True to his obsession with secrecy, Domenech denied it had been the case, only for Henry to confirm, a week before the start of the tournament, that “yes, the coach has come to see me, and told me I wouldn’t be in the starting XI at the World Cup”.
The agreement gave Henry a chance to exit the international stage in as dignified a manner as possible. Domenech had decided to redeploy his team in a 4-3-3 formation that he’d hardly ever put to the test before. In theory, this bold system would have suited Henry perfectly, so much so that it was widely believed that the striker had lobbied the French management to implement this tactical change. Standing at the tip of an attacking trident, Henry would have been able to exploit his undiminished technical abilities with greater effect than on the left side of a 4-2-3-1 set-up, in which he expended too much of his declining energy to cover one of the game’s more enterprising full-backs, Evra.
But when France finally adopted their new formation, in that 2-1 win over Costa Rica, it was Nicolas Anelka, not Thierry Henry, who found himself in the position of a No9. Some were surprised, and interpreted this as a snub; but not Henry, who'd been forewarned by Domenech. He'd been told that his role would be that of what the French call un joker: a luxury substitute; and that, should he refuse to play that role, he wouldn't be part of France's final squad.
Domenech’s decision was prompted, as ever, by expediency, political nous and a measure of sporting logic; to which I’m tempted to add: as was Henry’s. The destiny of both men had been closely entwined since 1998, when the up-and-coming coach had defended the player’s cause within the French camp as forcefully – and skilfully – as he could, something Thierry never forgot.
It was fitting than the last act in Domenech’s chaotic reign should coincide with Henry’s swansong. It should also be said that the agreement made sense in pure football terms. Short of match fitness as Henry undoubtedly was (through no fault of his own), he remained a potent presence in front of goal, a vastly experienced international whose knowledge of France’s future opponents was unequalled in the French camp.
That quality alone made dispensing with his services a risk that Domenech was not willing to take, notwithstanding the controversy that would have certainly erupted if Henry had been left behind. Henry accepted his de facto demotion with good grace, at least in public. “Je me mets minable pour l’équipe,” he said, which can roughly be translated as : “I sacrifice myself for the team” or even “I’m willing to grind myself into the dust for the team”.
There was an element of calculation in Thierry’s stance; but, as Jacques Crevoisier and Gilles Grimandi reminded me at the time, he was also a very rare beast: a footballer who could evaluate his own performances – and physical condition – with as much objectivity (and in deeper detail) than any of his coaches.
He'd lost speed? He knew it. He couldn't launch his runs with the same frequency as before? He knew it. Anelka could – just possibly - offer more playing with his back to goal? He knew that too, as he knew that a successful team is more often than not a blend of the older and the new. By his own admission, back in 1998, he and David Trezeguet hadn't felt "pressure" when their turn had come to take centre stage during the penalty shoot-out against Italy. 12 years later, Les Bleus needed fresher blood, players who ignored fear – but who would benefit from the guidance of those who had been the young, three World Cups ago. Henry could be that guide, and accepted it.
True, a part-time role in France’s campaign might benefit him in more ways than one. It would distance him from the reviled Domenech. His humility would wrong-foot a number of critics. In the stands of the Felix Bollaert stadium, where France had taken on Costa Rica, he’d heard his name sung in the stands with genuine affection. The sight of Henry warming up on the touchline while his younger teammates were playing against Mexico and Uruguay in South Africa would lead many to wonder whether they’d misjudged him after all.
The French team had retired to a five-star fortress on the shores of the Indian Ocean, the Peluza Hotel in Knysna, which was only accessible if you could get hold of a boat or show the proper identification documents to the policemen manning a roadblock on the one road leading to the luxurious compound. Henry kept as low a profile as possible, which, given the scant access the media were granted, meant he was invisible. Unverifiable – but persistent – rumours soon circulated of a "breakdown" between France's new playmaker, the introverted Yoann Gourcuff, and disgruntled old hands, of which Thierry was said to be one, and Franck Ribéry another.
Not that it mattered much: when Evra had been given the armband against Costa Rica, France Football ran the headline: “a true captain, at last” on its front page. The most successful French player in history (a tag that only seems to acquire value when you repeat it time and time again) had mutated from cosmopolitan record-breaker to some sort of pipe-and-slippers grandad within the course of a single year. This is not to say that he was resigned to his fate.
Despite Domenech’s best efforts to keep the media at bay every day, L’Équipe and other publications painted a disquieting picture of what was happening behind the ramparts of France’s fortress. Henry could no longer consider himself the leader of Les Bleus, but could place himself in the slipstream of those who’d taken on that role, namely Ribéry, Evra, Eric Abidal, William Gallas and, up to a point, Anelka. So he did. As in 2002 and 2006, small self-appointed committees met in private to discuss the team’s performance and the options at their disposal.
Domenech was lobbied to replace Gourcuff by the more defensive-minded Diaby on the right side of midfield. That proposal could be defended in tactical terms, but also hinted at racial faultlines within a squad in which players of West Indian and African origin outnumbered Caucasians by two to one. The “sacred union” of blacks, bleus et beurs which had so captured France’s imagination in 1998 belonged, alas, to history – or, for the more cynically-minded, was shown a posteriori to have been a fantasy.
Other players favoured reinstating Thierry in the starting XI, and deploying Anelka on the right, in a position similar to that which he occupied at Chelsea. In truth, the subject of these conversations mattered less than what they revealed of the deleterious atmosphere within the camp, and of the dire consequences any slip-up in France’s opening game – against Uruguay – would have on the team’s chances.
A number of people could press the self-destruct button. In the end, despite a desperately disappointing draw in which Henry featured for less than 20 minutes (when the Celeste had been reduced to 10 men), and could – maybe – have earned a thoroughly undeserved penalty when his volley crashed against a Uruguayan arm in the box (the source of much merriment in Ireland), the 0-0 scoreline – a repeat of the encounter between these two teams in the 2002 World Cup – came as something of a relief. At least we hadn’t lost.
Back home, the mood was sombre; defeatist, even. 60 per cent of L’Équipe readers believed that Uruguay, Mexico and South Africa stood a better chance of qualifying than France. It hadn’t helped that the pre-tournament preparation in Tignes, a ski resort in the Alps, Tunisia and the island of the Réunion had been marked by a series of bizarre incidents: Lassana Diarra’s unexpected withdrawal from the squad, due to an obscure medical condition; Gallas’s comical crash in a dune-buggy race; Anelka falling from his mountain bike in another of Domenech’s stranger attempts at team-bonding. It didn’t get much better once the team reached its base in Knysna.
Sports minister Rama Yade castigated the FFF for housing squad and delegation in one of South Africa’s most palatial (and most expensive) hotels; on the eve of the opening match against Uruguay, the news filtered through that the same FFF had chartered a private plane for the players’ wives and girlfriends so that they could be in the Green Point Stadium on June 11th, at a cost of £220,000; and so on.
The numerous sponsors of Les Bleus did all they could to drum up support in the French public, but in vain. As Arsène Wenger remarked, whilst it seemed that every other white van and black cab was adorned with the flag of St George in London, the tricolour was noticeable by its complete absence from Paris streets. It was yet another sign that France had fallen out of love with its team on that shameful night in St Denis; every setback was and would be perceived as a deserved retribution for cheating Ireland out of a place in the World Cup.
And to many it was fitting that the team which would avenge the Irish also wore green jerseys: Mexico, who, on a chilly night in Polokwane, beat France for the first time in their history and all but guaranteed that Les Bleus would leave the World Cup in humiliating fashion, as in 2002, and as they’d exited the European Championships of 2008, having shown nothing that resembled courage, skill or organisation.
There is no need to give you a translation of L'Équipe's headline of on June 18th: LES IMPOSTEURS. A photograph of Ribéry tangling with Mexican striker Guillermo Franco was accompanied by a scathing editorial, in which Fabrice Jouhaud exhorted his readers to laugh at Domenech's pitiful crew. No sadness should be felt, he said, no tears should be shed. The 'imposters' didn't deserve them. They didn't care – why should we care about them? In England, a reporter of The Times found a new way to cook an old chestnut when he remarked that if there was no 'I' in 'team', there was certainly one in équipe. In France, it was thought there were 11, or even 13, as André-Pierre Gignac and Mathieu Valbuena were introduced to replace the hapless Anelka and Sidney Govou in the second half.
With the honourable exception of Florent Malouda, goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, and possibly Evra, so overwhelmed by being given the captain’s armband that he could not hold back the tears when La Marseillaise soared above the vuvuzelas in the stadium, it was a case of every man for himself.
Anelka’s shocking performance should have warranted a 123rd cap for Thierry as a substitute, but the call never came. France’s record goalscorer hardly bothered to warm up on the touchline and watched impassively as Gignac (four goals in 17 matches for France, eight in 31 for Toulouse in the 2009-10 Ligue 1 season) was brought on at half-time to replace the Chelsea striker, whom we’d soon learn had spoken to his manager in the crudest terms imaginable in the interval.
From time to time, the cameras would cut to Henry, arms folded on his knees under a checked blanket, his face almost invisible under a woolly hat; the bench might as well have been a bath chair wheeled to a deserted beach. The look on his face was not one of bewilderment, but of barely disguised boredom. He’d seen it all before, and so had we. Or so we thought, until June 19th, when L’Équipe, again, broke with over a century of tradition to print in huge block letters the following words on its front page: “Go get fucked up the arse, you dirty son of a whore”.
The national team’s very public meltdown instantly became an affair of state in France, which should have alerted commentators that this was not only about football; in fact, it had little to do with football, Anelka’s appalling language, Domenech’s laughable self-regard and incompetence, and so-called “senior players” using Les Bleus as a means to their personal ends, scheming, plotting, disgracing themselves whilst pretending they were rebelling against the ‘system’.
It had to do with a fractured society, ridden with post-colonial guilt and neuroses, which had desperately wanted to believe in the 1998 black-blanc-beur utopia, and was now forced to smell its own shit. We, the French, had been cheated by a crew of young men from the banlieue who constantly spoke about 'respect' and gave it to no-one but themselves. Who valued nothing but diamond earrings, big wheels, easy girls, didn't sing the Marseillaise, and could only think with two parts of their body: their feet, and their prick. A friend called me after South Africa's victory in Bloemfontein, whom I told that – maybe – it'd be for the best. Laurent Blanc would step in. He'd find a team in ruins, yes. But he'd be given the time to build something new, to identify the right players, the next leaders, and …
He interrupted me. “Don’t fool yourself,” he said, “the next generation is even worse: la racaille”. Racaille – the awful word that Nicolas Sarkozy had used to describe the youths of la banlieue, a hyperbolic version of ‘riff-raff’, the dregs of society which should be ‘washed away with a Kärcher’, as the then Home Affairs Secretary had said. And, to my disgust, I found a part of myself agreeing with him.
Thierry Henry will never be forgiven for what he did and, especially, what he didn't do when the foolishness of others gave him the chance to become a true hero. A few words from him would have swayed the indecisive; the team he'd served magnificently for nearly 13 years was crying out for a figure of authority such as the former French captain, a Patrick Vieira, a Didier Deschamps, a Blanc, even a Zinedine Zidane, who could seize the rebels by the collar, and make them aware of the consequences that their shameful behaviour would have on their own careers – as it was clear that they'd lost any sense, if only temporarily, of the duties attached to representing their country.
But Henry remained invisible and silent throughout. The FFF president Jean-Pierre Escalettes saw him sitting at the back of the "bus of shame", as if he'd been a mere passenger there, and felt an urge to walk up to him – but checked himself, fearing (or so he said) that it would make captain Evra "look like a prick". "I wasn't good," the septuagenarian confessed four months later, "I was powerless".
It wasn’t until the plane carrying the shamed team landed at Le Bourget airport that we finally heard Henry’s voice, when he, very much like Ribéry had done before him, arranged to be interviewed on French national television on June 25th, in this case by the former PSG chairman Michel Denisot, now one of the best-known presenters on the Canal Plus network. Once again, Thierry missed a beat, opening his defence by talking about the “inventions” of “people”, speaking about France’s debacle as it had been nothing more than the consequence of a series of poor results, blown out of all proportion by the media.
Despite the gentleness of the questioning, his answers sounded both banal and aggressive, as if he couldn’t quite understand why he, the doyen of Les Bleus, could be associated with the greatest scandal in their entire history. There were flashes of frustration : “I could have been the big brother [OF THIS TEAM], but … I wasn’t anymore. I felt as if I’d been set aside”. But by whom, by what? “I wasn’t talked to as before. Everybody has their own reasons. And I don’t want to go into details.” The details, of course, were precisely what people – the French people, not the “people” Thierry felt had been after him for a long time – wanted to hear about. “I felt I’d been set aside,” he repeated, “and [when that happens], a man’s pride takes a knock.”
Henry sounded even less convincing when he tried to deny there had been “clans” within the French camp. “Affinities”, yes, as always. When Denisot teased him – gently – about the relationship between Gourcuff and Ribéry, he immediately looked for the exit door: “I haven’t seen everything. When you go to your room to sleep …” Then, fixing Denisot with a far from friendly glare, he added: “I didn’t see any fight. I didn’t see anyone applying pressure on anyone else.” Gourcuff became “Yo”, with a familiarity I couldn’t help but feel was forced.
And when the episode of the team bus was finally broached, Thierry said, again: “I didn’t see anyone applying pressure on anybody else.” Cut, back to the studio – and the PR exercise had turned into another disaster. I have yet to meet anyone who hadn’t been shocked by Henry’s desperately awkward performance. He sounded as if he’d weighed his options until he’d decided that he ought to do something.
On the eve of this far from convincing exercise, Thierry had paid a grotesque visit to the Élysée palace to meet president Sarkozy, who’d been so “concerned” with the happenings in South Africa that he’d taken time off from a summit with Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin in Moscow to let it be known that the French head of state wasn’t amused. The footballer was whisked to the Champs-Élysées in a presidential car which picked him up on the tarmac of the Le Bourget airport, after he’d called De Gaulle’s successor from South Africa, or so we were told.
Remarkable: a ball-kicker could get the keeper of France’s nuclear arsenal on the phone, just like that. Was it Henry (or his advisors) who thought it might be a good idea? Was it Sarkozy, the PR-obsessed politician, who felt he had to welcome France’s star footballer in his office to keep ‘in phase’ with his disenchanted electorate? Over 100 delegates from various NGOs who were supposed to meet the president at the time (11 am, June 24th) were shown the door in order to accommodate the former French captain, and were requested to make do with the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs instead.
Quite understandably, to quote Richard Thompson, they “took their business elsewhere”. What was said between Henry and Sarkozy never surfaced, despite the publicity given to their crisis talks. No cameras were allowed. No transcript of what must have been a fascinating conversation was passed on to the press. A parliamentary commission was put together for the sole purpose of holding an inquest on France’s disgraceful failure at the World Cup. On it went, ridiculously so. France had, truly, had a breakdown.
Henry too had benefited from the protection and encouragement of a ‘big brother’ in the early stages of his career, literally so, as it was his own brother, Willy, who’d made sure everything was fine for the little one. He knew as well as anyone that, should he assume this role, he could have a profound impact on a group of players that was in desperate need of a figure of benign authority. He was the last of the world champions, for goodness sake.
He was the last chance, perhaps, that France had of regaining the esprit de corps that had led them to three World and European finals in eight years. Henry could have exited international football in the fashion his achievements deserved, and, perhaps, silenced those who doubted that he could ever be considered a true “great” of the game. Players still listened to him. All he had to do was to walk out of a bus. But he stayed put, seemingly unconcerned. He remained true to the policy he’d adopted two months beforehand: do what’s asked of you, no more than that, shut up, and let them self-destruct if that’s what they want to do.
You’ll have nothing to do with this mess anymore, you won’t be responsible for it.
This is an edited extract from Thierry Henry: Lonely at the Top by Philippe Auclair.