Short-listed for the second successive time for the FIFA
World Player of the Year award, at the relatively young age of 27,
Thierry Henry is already something of a seasoned veteran. After ten
years at the very highest level of the beautiful game, the
lightning-fast Frenchman has not only added consistency to his
game, but seems to step up a level every season. The Arsenal
striker has enjoyed a fantastic 2004, even if his performances for
the French national side have not quite matched those for his club.
Extremely quick and technically adroit, the Gunners' lethal
weapon complements his instinct for goal with a feeling for the
killer pass, all of which make him the archetypal modern striker.
Football experts are unanimous in their praise. "At the
moment he's the best striker in the world," proffered
Arsenal captain Patrick Vieira back in April, while Franz
Beckenbauer believes, "Germany are light years away from
having a player like him." Arsène Wenger, Henry's boss at
Arsenal, is far from circumspect when it comes to lauding his
player's talents either. "He's intelligent and
ambitious. A player with those two qualities can only get better.
He'll continue to progress because he wants to improve all the
time," he said.
Thierry Henry's year perfectly illustrates this desire to improve. After finishing behind Van Nistelrooy in the 2003 English Premier League scoring charts with 24 goals, Henry obliterated his competitors this year, scoring 30 goals in the league, eight ahead of nearest rival Alan Shearer.
Those goals helped Arsenal to another Premiership title, this time without losing a single match. In fact, the English champions managed to string together an amazing 49 games without defeat in a run that saw them kick this season off at a blistering pace. Currently second behind Chelsea in the standings, the Gunners' in-form number 14 has already netted 11 times in the league and twice in Europe. Two of those goals came in a sublime performance against Charlton earlier this autumn, when he netted with an inspirational back-heel and a powerful shot just under the bar, before generously gifting José Antonio Reyesa goal with the perfect pass.
Voted the Premier League's best player in 2003, 'King' Henry broke new ground when he retained his title this year, an achievement unmatched by any other player. With the French national side, though, he has found it frustratingly difficult to reach the same heights. Despite an unblemished record in qualification, France's surprise loss to Greece in the quarter-finals of UEFA Euro 2004 cancelled out all their previous good work. On target just three times this year with the national team, that figure is proof of 'Titi's' struggles with 'Les Bleus' in 2004.
France's early departure from Portugal is one of few disappointments in the career of this adopted Londoner, who has already collected a list of titles most players can only dream of. A European champion at youth level in 1996, Henry has not stopped winning trophies since. World and European champion with 'Les Bleus', 'Titi' reached the final of the UEFA Cup with Arsenal in 2000, a game in which he was elected man of the match. 2002 saw him secure a League and Cup double with the Gunners, to add to the French championship he won with AS Monaco FC in 1997. 2003 brought a FIFA Confederations Cup triumph, a competition in which Henry finished as top scorer with four goals. Indeed, every time France have won a trophy with Henry in their side, the Gunner has emerged as his country's most prolific marksman. The scoring charts at France 98, Belgium/Holland 2000 and France 2003 all point to a potential Henry over-dependence on the part of the French national team.
Into the scoring habit at 17
After joining the INF academy at Clairefontaine alongside the likes of Nicolas Anelka, David Trezeguet and Jérôme Rothen, Thierry Henry left for Monaco, where he made his Ligue 1 debut in a 2-0 victory over Nice on 31 August 1994. A few months later, he chipped in with his first two goals in a resounding 6-0 win over Lens. An international call-up followed in October 1997, when Henry won his first cap as France ran out 2-1 winners over South Africa. Since then, he has represented his country 68 times, scoring 28 goals in the process.
A spell in Italy came next, but that proved to be a tough experience, as many French players have found down the years. His six months at Juventus came to an end when Arsène Wenger, Henry's former manager at Monaco, brought him to the English capital for £10 million in 1999. Henry has not looked back since, and has Wenger to thank for turning his career around. The Alsace-born coach converted Henry into a centre forward, having previously played him as a winger while the two were at Monaco.
Heading off to England was a step into the unknown, but Henry grew in confidence as the goals started to come. Some 150 strikes since 1999 have been Wenger's reward for the faith he placed in his former protégé, and Henry repaid that faith again when he signed a new contract keeping him at the London club until 2007. "I hope I can stay at Arsenal forever," he said, and few doubt his sincerity.
A native of Les Ulis, the troubled Parisian suburb where he grew up in testing surroundings, Henry's lowest point as a professional remains without doubt the 2002 FIFA World Cup™. His red card in the game against Uruguay added insult to the injury of France's shock first-round elimination. Worse still for a striker of his calibre, 'Les Bleus' flew home without a single goal between them. Of course, Henry's winning temperament and supreme self-confidence meant it was only a matter of time before he bounced back.
"Listen, I know scoring is important for a striker, but I don't see that as my main role. I like to move around and set up goals," insisted this fan of Marco van Basten recently. The stats bear him out: Henry finished last season with 20 assists to go along with his 30 goals. As a former winger, he has retained his collective instincts and this is part of what makes him such an unpredictable centre forward. "I'm obsessed by the idea of leaving my mark on history," he says. He has surely done that already, but the title of FIFA World Player of the Year 2004 would surely add a welcome seal of approval.