Henry goes global
A couple of weeks ago, Pelé, still the greatest player ever to put on cleats, made a ridiculous exaggeration: The American public had supposedly been misled to believe David Beckham was a goal scorer.
Now, if Thierry Henry ever makes good on his claim that he'd like to follow Becks to Major League Soccer some day, there'd be no mistake for Pelé to make: The FC Barcelona forward is a scoring machine.
Henry is merely the all-time leading scorer in Arsenal history. Before departing London for Spain this past summer on a $32 million transfer that shocked Gunners nation to its core, the 30-year-old Frenchman scored 226 goals in all competitions during eight years with Arsenal and had built himself into one of the biggest stars in world soccer.
Now Henry is confronting a whole new set of challenges at Barcelona. Whereas he was the focal point of the Arsenal offense, he's now just one of countless scoring threats for the Blaugrana. And fittingly for a team whose ranks include two-time FIFA World Player of the Year Ronaldinho, three-time African Footballer of the Year Samuel Eto'o and Argentine megastar Lionel Messi, expectations are huge.
Barça is an enormous favorite to win back the Champions League and Spanish league titles it lost last season, and naturally, there are growing pains for a team with so many big names on its roster. Henry himself is struggling to adapt to a new offense and new league, but he's beginning to find his form as a key component of the most terrifying attack in the world.
Henry recently called me from Madrid and we discussed his adjustments to the Spanish game, what he thinks about his still-undefeated former mates at Arsenal, and his love for the NBA. Yes, Henry is an absolute hoops freak, and he cites America's sports culture as a major reason why he'd like to make the jump to the States before he calls it quits.
When? He won't say -- his contract with Barça doesn't expire until 2011, and there usually isn't much demand for a 34-year-old striker. But if he does end up suiting up in MLS, no one will be able to say the American public didn't know what it was getting: an offensive powerhouse, a proven winner (including a World Cup title) and, quite possibly, the biggest soccer celebrity in the world outside of Beckham.
SI.com: You're surrounded by some insane talent at Barcelona. Heading into this season, was this most excited you've ever been?
Henry: It's not like I was some kid just arriving at a big club. I've seen that look in young kids' eyes and I'm sure I was once like that, too. Don't get me wrong, arriving here was a huge satisfaction. But I've been in the game a long time and I've been fortunate to play with great players at Arsenal, the French national team and now here.
SI.com: With Arsenal, your role was very clear -- make a run on the goal and put it in. Here, with a more complicated offense, it's less so. Have you consciously had to change the way you play?
Henry: It is different. The game moves so much quicker in England. As a striker, you touch the ball more often. In Spain, the game is slower. At Barcelona, sometimes we have the ball the whole game. You pass the ball around from left to right, right to left. Sometimes I have to play on the left or change positions in the middle of the game. It depends on who we're playing and what [manager Frank Rijkaard] is asking. Here, I play with my back to the net much more, whereas at Arsenal I was always facing the defenders. It's a completely different type of game.
SI.com: You've missed a lot of easy goals so far this year. Has it just been bad luck or do you think you're still adjusting to the new situation?
Henry: It's only been in a few games. I haven't had as many one-on-one chances, and that's because of the type of game they play here. But yes, I have missed a few easier chances; I've hit the post four times. But I have eight goals [through 15 games in all competitions]. I'm only interested in stats and I see that I have eight goals. I know I can do better, I also know it could be worse. It takes time.
SI.com: Would anything less than winning the Champions League this season be considered a disappointment?
Henry: Any time you lose is a disappointment. It was disappointing to never win the Champions League with Arsenal. It doesn't matter what the game is or who you're playing with. If you're a winner, any time you lose is a disappointment, and I hate losing. Obviously, the hype around Barcelona right now is really high. When you play here, if you don't win the big games, it's a disappointment.
SI.com: Eto'o will come off the injury list soon. How will you, Ronaldinho, Messi and he all play at once?
Henry: I'm not the guy in charge -- there's only one guy who can tell you that. But that definitely can be and will be something great because Sammy is a great player. But whoever's out there on the pitch is going to have to help Barcelona win. That's the most important thing.
SI.com: Arsenal is still undefeated this season, and you were quoted as saying the team may actually be better off without you because of its style of play.
Henry: I don't know about that. People like to tweak quotes and that sounds better. Before I arrived and when I left, Arsenal has remained Arsenal. Players come and go. When I watch them play, I see the same Arsenal -- moving the ball, playing one-two touch football, scoring the Arsenal way. It's the same thing. It's been like that the last the 11 years. The only thing that might change is [manager] Arsène Wenger. If he leaves, they stop being Arsenal.
SI.com: You left a club known for producing amazing young players, but Barcelona might be even better in that regard.
Henry: It's just ridiculous. You see one coming through one year, the next year it's another one. Recently they've had guys like Bojan Krkic and Giovani dos Santos coming through. But some of these older guys came through the system, like Xavi and Carles Puyol. Even Cesc Fàbregas [of Arsenal] came from here. Both clubs are known for that, but it is amazing how every year Barça seems to have like one or two players being called the next big star. It becomes almost normal, but that's just the way it is.
SI.com: You've done a lot of activism work against racism in soccer with your One 4 All Foundation. Would you say the situation has improved since you began your work?
Henry: I can't say if it has or hasn't, but at least people pay more attention now. You see slogans before matches on banners and on T-shirts, things like that. So do I think it is raising awareness. Did it change anything? That's difficult to do. To a degree, you need to go back in time.
SI.com: You're tight with San Antonio Spurs guard Tony Parker. How often do you guys talk?
Henry: Two to three times a week. Tony's amazing; what he's doing is out of this world. I grew up watching basketball, that's why I say the only thing that counts for me is stats. It's the only thing that people remember. For instance, people don't remember if Tim Duncan played well in the third game of the NBA Finals. They'll just say, how many rebounds, how many points and assists did he have? That's why I love American sports. You want to make history? Do it with numbers.
SI.com: So it's true that you're really a huge NBA junkie?
Henry: Oh, it's what I do. I just love basketball. I had a chance to meet a lot of my favorite players at Tony's wedding. I stay in contact with Deron Williams, who I think is a tremendous point guard. I also know [fellow Frenchman] Ronny Turiaf, obviously, and Steve Nash; I love those guys. For me, it was like a dream to meet them all, because if I hadn't played soccer, I would have liked to play basketball.
SI.com: I understand you're planning on attending lots of NBA games here in the States over La Liga's winter break.
Henry: I'm definitely going to see San Antonio. I went to the Finals last year, the last game against Cleveland. Then we'll see. I'd like to go to Los Angeles to see the Jazz play the Lakers on Dec. 28 so I can see Deron play against Ronny. For the first time in eight years, I have a break! [There is no winter break in England.] That's the one thing that really kills me in Europe, because I love basketball so much. We play at the same time, so it's hard to go to games.
SI.com: You recently said you wouldn't mind playing in America some day. Why?
Henry: I just love America, everything about it. The way you think, the sports -- basketball, American football -- there's always some sports to watch, something to do. Since I was young, I've always had it in the back of my mind that I wanted live there. Some players want to finish their careers in Australia, the Middle East or back at the club where they started. For me, it's America. I don't know when it's going to happen, I just know I've been wanting to do this since I was young.
SI.com: But a lot of these players say that because they want to disappear and live somewhat anonymously here. A lot of people would recognize you in the U.S.
Henry: Yes, to a degree. But I always go to America when I have down time because I can just chill. When I go to New York, L.A., Miami, it's still OK. There are always some people who recognize me, who know their soccer. But I can go to the movies any time and have a popcorn and a Pepsi and just sit down and that's it. When I'm there, I feel relaxed and comfortable.