Thierry Henry has seen and done it all with France. The only Frenchman to have taken part in four FIFA World Cup™ tournaments, he experienced a massive high on home soil in 1998, a huge disappointment at Korea/Japan 2002, an unexpected revival at Germany 2006 and an inexplicable debacle at South Africa 2010.
Alongside those ventures, the graceful forward was part of the golden generation that enjoyed a glorious triumph at UEFA Euro 2000. He also scored 51 goals in 123 appearances for Les Bleus, making him the country’s top scorer and second most capped player of all time.
In Rio de Janeiro to analyse Brazil 2014 matches for television, the 36-year-old New York Red Bulls star took time out of his busy schedule to grant an in-depth interview to FIFA.com, during which he recounted his long-lasting love affair with the French national football team.
FIFA.com: Do you remember the first time you saw France play?
Thierry Henry: My earliest memory of watching France is Marius Tresor’s goal against Germany at the 1982 World Cup in Spain. It’s just a brief flashback. I was in the West Indies at the time, and there was an explosion of joy in my house – I didn’t really understand what was happening. I turned around and saw the replay of Tresor’s volley. Everyone knows what happened next.
Was it right then that you were won over by the French national side?
I was just five then, so it was the only image I had of them. But Mexico 1986 definitely did trigger something. Les Bleus had a great run, knocking out Brazil along the way. That’s when I really started to take an interest. There was Euro 1984 too. As a supporter, it was easy to fall in love with that team.
At what point did you think that the feeling was mutual?
That was also easy to tell, because it helps when you play in a World Cup that your country is hosting. That coincided with my debut. The victory in 1998 was the high point – you dream about that as a young boy, you tell yourself that one day you’ll win the World Cup, but at the same time a small part of you knows that it’s a fantasy that’ll never become reality. And then, in the end, we did it, and the fact that we did so just along the road from where I grew up was truly incredible.
What advice would you give to the new generation of French internationals?
The two pieces of advice that I would give them is to make the most of it, and to understand that experience comes from playing in tournaments like these. They’ll learn a lot, and it won’t always be easy, but this generation really does have the quality to do well and lift trophies. I hope they do it quite quickly. When you play in a World Cup, you never know if you’ll get the chance to do it again. I had the opportunity to play in four, so it probably seems a bit strange to say that, but you have to approach each one as if it’s your last.
Which current French players are you most impressed with?
There are a few. We lost Franck Ribery ahead of the World Cup, but he’s an amazing player. And then there’s Karim Benzema, Paul Pogba, Raphael Varane and so on. The guys in the midfield and up front are getting a lot of praise, but Varane is an extraordinary player. He’s composed, and already plays like a defender with a ten-year career under his belt. I don’t think people are talking about him enough. It’s quite unusual to be so mature at such a young age, although playing at Real Madrid has clearly helped him. We had Laurent Blanc; Varane has a similar style, but with different qualities. It’s pretty easy to spot a defence that has a player who remains calm no matter what.
It seems that the French public has fallen in love with Les Bleus again.
Well, in football, I think love is generated by winning matches. When you’re not winning, the bond isn’t quite so strong, if it exists at all. There are highs and lows, and it’s up to you to perform well and thereby ensure that those feelings remain intact.
Do you think that all love affairs end badly?
It’s not just about love. Happy endings don’t really exist, except in Hollywood. But things become much tougher when love is involved. When it’s work-related, or something like that, things normally have a way of sorting themselves out. But love is different, as it can transform into hate. But that’s life.
Have you been able to come to terms with the circumstances surrounding the end of your international career?
I’ve got no problem with it. It’s not a question of coming to terms with it – that’s football.
It was your goal in 2006 that eliminated Brazil in the quarter-finals. With that in mind, how have you been welcomed here?
Very well, actually; it’s an extremely welcoming country. I already visited last year. People like to chat, and ask you where you’re from. Some recognise me and some don’t, but generally they all know a bit about football. What surprises me about the people here is their generosity, their good humour and their desire to have fun. Of course they talk about my goal in 2006, but as I often say, at the end of the day, we didn’t win that tournament either. There can only be one team who returns home completely satisfied, and that’s the winner.
You rubbed shoulders with Lionel Messi at Barcelona. Do you think he is going to have a successful World Cup?
Messi doesn’t play all by himself. Let’s talk about Argentina. It’s clear that if Argentina win, Messi will play well. At some point, the guys around him will have to help him out. Has Argentina’s time come? They haven’t won the World Cup in quite some time. So it’s not really a ‘Messi problem’. The team has to play as a unit, work hard, and only then will you see Messi performing at the top of his game – it’s as simple as that.
Which attack-minded players have caught your eye recently?
Luis Suarez, of course, Robin Van Persie and Arjen Robben, for starters. And then there are players like Thomas Muller, who doesn’t get talked about as much, but keeps finding a way to stick the ball in the net. If there’s a loose ball or deflected shot, he’s ready to pounce. Even when he’s not trying to score, he scores. There are lots of attackers I could mention, but what’s more important is teams’ overall approach. It’s always better when they try to attack rather than defend.