FIFA Ballon d'Or

Henry: Germany’s success is reward for all the suffering

After a hugely successful playing career spanning two decades, Thierry Henry decided it was finally time to hang up his boots last December. Having defended the colours of, among others, Juventus, Arsenal, Barcelona and New York Red Bulls, and won a European and world title with France, the 37-year old now spends his time analysing the game he loves while preparing for a future career in coaching.

On his recent visit to Zurich, where he had the honour of presenting Cristiano Ronaldo with the FIFA Ballon d’Or for 2014, the former striker spoke exclusively to about his impressions of the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, his time sharing a dressing room with Lionel Messi and the learning curve involved in becoming a coach. Although you won a vast array of trophies and accolades, the Ballon d’Or eluded you, despite being among the ten finalists from 2000 to 2006 and twice being in the top three. How do you feel about that award now?
Thierry Henry: When you play football, your goal is to win team honours. You strive for that and only when your team has won and you’ve made an outstanding contribution can individual awards follow. I never won the Ballon d’Or but I picked up other individual accolades that were very rewarding. However, that was never my objective as I was always thinking about collective honours. That said, I personally value the long career I had at the highest level. For me, that is like a title.

A good example of the importance of the collective might be the Germany side Joachim Low guided to the world title in Brazil. What strikes you most about that team?
It’s an extraordinary generation of players and one that has left its mark in the history of football. Just the way they defeated Brazil would entitle them to their place in footballing lore, but then they went on to become world champions. It was the culmination of a long process that was founded on past defeats. When they lost the Final at Korea/Japan 2002, they realised that major changes were needed. They then reached the World Cup semis in 2006 and later the final of EURO 2008…

Can you elaborate a bit more on that process?
It’s curious, because with the France national team, we experienced it in reverse. First we had the triumphs, then the bad times. This generation of German players learned more, in the sense that they lost, suffered, lost again but eventually learned. Their success is the reward for all that suffering – for never giving up and for continuing to try until they finally won. That generation of players, with people like Philipp Lahm, who was there right from the start, really deserved it.

From the very first training session I had with him, what struck me was his desire to head for goal and score.

What was your impression of the football at Brazil 2014
I think we definitely saw something new: [Manuel] Neuer changed what we perceive as the job of a goalkeeper. The role had already evolved when keepers were prohibited from picking up back-passes, but the person who has really revolutionised the position is Neuer. We’ve seen formations with a lot of people high up the pitch, but we’d never seen a goalkeeper play so far from his goal. Johan Cruyff’s Ajax side also had keepers who passed the ball a lot but never from level with the defenders. With Neuer, it’s like you always have an extra man. That change also owes much to the freedom he’s been given by his coach, but Neuer can do it as he’s a truly great goalkeeper. He always stays composed when making his passes – he’s like a genuine libero. That role really emerged in the 80s and 90s but now Neuer is the new libero. That’s what amazed everyone at that World Cup, and now all keepers will start to play like him.

Moving further upfield to a position you know well, would you rather have Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi?
Well, I played with Leo, so you can guess my answer (laughs). I have enormous respect for Cristiano who has managed to remain at the highest level for many years – and by that I mean at an extraordinarily high level. It’s one thing to have a single great season, but to maintain it for so many years is something else. I don’t think we fully realise just what these guys are achieving. So, while huge respect goes to Ronaldo, having played with Messi and shared extraordinary moments with him, both in victory and defeat, it has to be Leo.

When you arrived at Barça in 2007, was it already obvious to you that Messi was really special? He would have been only 20 then…
It was obvious to everyone, right from the start, and you didn’t have to be an expert to see it. From the very first training session I had with him, what struck me was his desire to head for goal and score. He’d get the ball and that would be his sole focus. Leo was, and still is, special. There are no superlatives that haven’t already been used to describe him. We should be happy that we’re able to watch him play. One day he’ll leave it all behind and football will miss him dearly, so we should enjoy him while we can.

It’s one thing knowing about football but something else entirely being able to pass that knowledge to the players and handle their egos.

Although you’re now working as a football analyst on TV, have you considered going into coaching?
Yes, for sure but I have to go step by step. First I have to get my coaching licence, because it’s one thing knowing about football but something else entirely being able to pass that knowledge to the players and handle their egos. I have a lot to learn but, as an occupation, it would be interesting.

You mentioned players’ egos. Is dealing with that the hardest part of coaching?
No I don’t think so. When you’re a player, you do your training and you go home. When you’re a coach, you need to arrive first, prepare your training and you always have something to worry about. You’re thinking, how can I get that injured player fit again or how can I break this run of bad results? Problems end up at your door. You might have a squad member complaining about not getting enough playing time, while you’re trying to focus on the next fixture with the press on your back for going three games without a win. You have to be able to handle all that, which isn’t easy, so that’s why you need to take your time and educate yourself.

Finally, of all the coaches you’ve worked with, who have you learned most from?
I learned from all of them, the good and the bad. People always talk about the good years, but the truth is that you learn even more when things aren’t going well. People try to forget those difficult times but I think the opposite: you have to remember them so as to learn from your mistakes and not repeat them.

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