The Irish camp is keen to dimiss it but for the French, it’s on everyone’s lips. We’re revisiting an extract from French Football Weekly’s Jeremy Smith’s interview with Phillipe Auclair, author of Thierry Henry: Lonely At The Top. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Henry is a divisive figure in French football. Perceived as aloof, an adversary of Zidane, and the apparent leader of a shameful strike at the 2010 World Cup, we look at the Frenchman’s standing in history, and that night in Paris.
JS: Why is he loved in England and, maybe, reviled in France?
PA: The funny thing is that, in France, outside the football world, he still has a positive image, judging by polls and studies for the most popular sportsman. But very often they are people who are not interested in sports, so they will name Yannick Noah and Zidane – Noah played his last game over 15-20 years ago and Zizou has been retired for a while now, as a player.
Within football he always had this image of being quite aloof and distant and quite manipulative. This is the reputation that he’s got in the media, but he also has it amongst people who love football; people who will read for example France Football will not necessarily have a very positive image of Thierry.
I think, as well, one of the problems is that, even though he is France’s record goalscorer, there is this weird idea that he failed to deliver for France. Which I find astonishing, but it’s true! I mean, he was top scorer in 1998, he was probably our best player in 2000, he scored the goal against Brazil in 2006 [the only assist he ever received from Zidane for France], he scored the goal that took us to the  World Cup, in Ireland.
He was pretty much top scorer in every major tournament – even in 2002, he scored as many as anyone else!
That’s quite funny! And in the Confederations Cup of 2003, he was superb in that tournament [Henry won the Golden Ball and the Golden Boot, for best player and top scorer], and it was the Zidane-free tournament. And even in Euro 2004, he was absolutely knackered on the back of that incredibly draining season with Arsenal, but he wasn’t awful, there were others who were far worse.
But I think he suffered from that – he suffered from the fact that there was this idea, this theory, that he and Zidane were adversaries, were rivals, with Zizou very much reluctant to pass on the keys of the team to his natural successor, who was of course Thierry. And then of course there was the Hand of Gaul in Paris. And then there was Knysna (When French players refused to train following Nicolas Anelka and Raymond Domenech’s bust-up at the World Cup in South Africa). And Knysna, he didn’t come out of that well at all. That probably explains why people have got quite a different attitude.
I mean also, his career happened outside France. His career was Arsenal, then Barcelona, then the Red Bulls. When he was at Monaco, it was not a time of unmitigated triumph. He had problems there, serious problems. He also had great moments, in Europe in particular. He was a kid – but a kid who was already considered, already seen, at the age of 18 or 19, as the superstar of tomorrow.
I feel that part of the problem with Henry is that he was too good during his career. Good as ingentil [well-behaved] rather than a good player. Maybe if he’d shown more of a different side to him on the pitch – as we’ve spoken about Cantona, Zidane – if he’d done more controversial things?
The guy who is at the top of the tree from 2000-2005 is just perfect behaviour – and whilst being dished some very rough treatment indeed – when they could get close to him, that is!
But you might be right – it may have played against him that there was no moment of darkness, so to speak. There are some players who walk between the raindrops, like Ryan Giggs – I think it’s one caution in… I can’t remember but the figures are extraordinary. But compared to a Cantona, a Steven Gerrard, even a Lampard – they did have their moments. But Thierry… so therefore everything seems a little bit… it’s very, very high, but it’s a plateau – it doesn’t have the peaks that people remember.
And then, the handball…
Even then, if it had been another player, would it have been such a scandal? I mean Robbie Keane did something far worse for Ireland against Georgia, and I don’t know that he has such a stain on him. Nobody thinks that he’s an angel, or a saint.
OK, Henry shouldn’t have celebrated the way he did, that’s the mistake.
Especially as he doesn’t usually celebrate.
Exactly. And you know, he also said, well it was Gallas [who scored], we were born on the same day, we went to Clairefontaine together… Come on – you’re not the closest of friends, we know that! And then the whole thing with Richard Dunne at the end, that was bad, I didn’t like that at all. If he had gone up to them and said “I’m really sorry I’ve done it”… but I don’t think that was the dialogue.
But it rankles, it rankles. And especially since there were so many nice guys on that Irish team, those guys were really great. You know, Kevin Kilbane is one of the loveliest men in football as well, Shay Given. But it was like “the bastards have won”. To say that about your own country – it’s horrible! And that’s one thing I can’t get over, I will really never get over it.
I wonder if it would have been different if France had dominated the match but just hadn’t scored…
Yeah, or had a penalty denied, or – I don’t know – one of the players had been injured by a bad tackle by Sean St. Ledger or Keith Andrews! [Laughs] It’s true. But the fact is that the Irish were the better side, were playing the better football. I remember thinking at the time I know where the next goal is going to come from and it’s not going to be from someone in a blue shirt. We were all convinced of it. And I think that they knew it.
It’s strange because – I don’t know, it’s only a personal opinion – but is there a moment that you associate with Thierry which immediately comes to mind? There’s loads of moments, loads of images – you know, the goal against Manchester United, the way he flicked the ball on his chest [sic], you remember that.
But I’m also wondering if it’s a product of the TV age, perhaps, more than anything else. It’s giving you the impression that you were there when you weren’t. And giving far greater relief – in the proper sense – to an event which was actually quite flat to start with. And I’m convinced about that – I’m actually going to write something about that – I think people don’t know how to watch football anymore, I think their perception of football is wrong. They watch too much television, there are too many replays, too much slo-mo, people don’t understand the game anymore. I really do think that. People who do understand the game are people who go to stadiums, who don’t rely on the jumbotron to tell them what happened.
Republished with kind permission of French Football Weekly