Thierry Henry: The next James Bond? I have no pretensions of being an actor
Thierry Henry can’t stop talking. Loquacious at the best of times, today the Arsenal striker has something approaching verbal diarrhoea. Which should be good news for FourFourTwo... but might not be.
We’re in the sweaty basement of a Soho record shop for the launch of Henry’s major new sponsorship deal with Reebok.
The theme of the sportswear firm’s campaign is ‘I Am What I Am’ and Henry’s clearly happy explaining exactly who that is. So much so that by the time he’s conducted an hour-long press conference, moved along a row of TV interviewers, faced down a group of national hacks and found time for quick Q&As with assorted foreign journalists, it’s almost 9pm. And he’s still got his one major interview to do: with the FFT readers.
Fortunately any fears that the Frenchman will be running on empty prove groundless. Flopping down in a chair alongside us, he smiles that insouciant smile, and prepares to reveal the real Thierry Henry.
What do you recall about your childhood in Les Ulis? Did you always have a football at your feet?
Simon Nuttall, via e-mail
Sure, I always had a ball at my feet. Above all, I remember my dad’s encouragement and criticism. Even when I was young he would tell me what I’d done wrong in games. My dad played a big role in my footballing education – at times it was as if I was playing for him. As a kid there’s not much better than making your parents happy. I remember the feeling of walking back to the car after a really good performance, knowing he was going to have a smile on his face because of what I’d done. Not that it happened all that often! He always taught me to never be happy with what you have or what you did – there is always room for improvement. That’s the way I was brought up.
Being Parisian, did moving to the South of France come as a bit of a culture shock?
Jerry, via e-mail
It was something of a shock, yes, compared to the Parisian suburbs where I’d grown up. What hit me was how clean everything was and how many flash cars there were. I had the impression that I wasn’t really a part of it, that I didn’t fit in. It was like being on a giant film set, nothing seemed real. I found it hard to get used to it, but Monaco is a nice town, a great place to live.
Are you glad Sonny Anderson was in the Monaco striker’s role, pushing you onto the wing and broadening your education?
Sarah Dawkes, via e-mail
Yes, because I learnt from watching the runs he made. And I learnt other skills from being out wide: it proved beneficial to my career. Playing out wide after always having been a centre-forward taught me things about the game I might not have otherwise learned. But what it taught me above all was that when you’re the centre-forward you’re almost always going to get the headlines. You can be giving your all out wide, doing your best to get the ball over, to set up a goal, but it will always be the man who puts the ball in the net who gets the glory and the attention. Sonny wasn’t like that – he’d be grateful for the work his team-mates put in – but for many people, the press, it was all about the striker. Even if he hadn’t been good, if he scored it would be all about him.
It taught me to be aware and recognise the work of others. Now I’m getting the goals, but I try to highlight the contribution of my team-mates when I score. I think it’s a shame that there’s so much focus on the guy who puts the ball in the net. You can beat three men and put in a cross that needs only poking over the line and still the guy who scored will get all the headlines.
When Desailly was sent off in the World Cup final, for a fraction of a second I thought “f*ck!” but it certainly didn’t spoil my celebrations
Is it true that your uncle was the French
400-metre hurdle champion?
Iain Spragg, Finchley
I’m not sure if he was the French champion, but he was a really good athlete, really fast. But he did lots of sports. He was on the Everton staff as a physio – Aurelien Henry. The year we did the double , when we beat Everton 4-3 in the final game of the season, he was on their bench.
You would’ve played in the 1998 World Cup Final if Marcel Desailly hadn’t been sent off. How did you feel when you realised that red card had ended your World Cup dream? Did it spoil your celebrations that night?
David Moss, via e-mail
To be honest, it was tough. It was a World Cup Final, after all. The coach, Aime Jacquet had told me to go and warm up at half-time: “You’re going to go on,” he said. A bit of time passed and then he said “OK, five more minutes,” and then the card came out. It’s true that for a fraction of a second I thought “F*ck!” but it certainly didn’t spoil my celebrations – it was an extraordinary triumph.
After the World Cup, you moved to Juventus: what went wrong there?
Ryan White, via e-mail
There’s something I have to say here, something that needs clearing up. People often say I didn’t play much at Juve, but I always played. First of all, I only joined them in January, which explains the limited number of games. I played in all of the remaining 16 games of the season, starting in 13 of them; the first three I was on the bench because the coach, Marcello Lippi, was in the process of deciding to quit the club and thought it best to give me a bit of time. And in the last five or six games, I either scored or set up a goal. One or the other. It’s true that it took me a few games to get used to the system, because we played a 3-5-2 system I wasn’t used to, but I soon adapted and started to play well. I left Juventus for other reasons, which I’ve never wanted to go into. [FFT: But now you’re going to reveal all...?] No.
Love Boat, pornographic? What’s he on?!
Having played for Juve, what do you make of the recent match-fixing scandal? Did you ever suspect anything untoward while you were in Turin, and, was the punishment handed to the teams enough?
Larry Longfellow, Littlehampton
Frankly, no, I never suspected anything, and I don’t like to talk about things when I don’t have all the information to hand.
All we know is what we’ve read or heard, so it’s difficult to judge what is the truth. I remember when Marseille were stripped of their title after winning the Champions League [in 1993]: I just didn’t want to know about the details. I was a Marseille fan at the time, it was a team that made me dream and I just didn’t want to know about all of that stuff.
While skiing in Val d’Isere, I got into
a cheesy French soap opera called Love Boat, even though I barely speak a word of French. It was like a porno movie without the sex. Are you familiar with this show? Any other French TV recommendations?
Nick Francis, via e-mail
Love Boat, pornographic? What’s he on?! As for French TV programmes, I can’t say I watch a lot – apart from football matches and the football shows.
Who’s better? Johnny Hallyday or Elvis?
Mark Wilder, Basildon
For me, neither of them.
How easy a decision was it to rejoin Wenger at Arsenal? What clubs did you reject?
Tony Howard, Maidenhead
I didn’t reject any other clubs. I didn’t even consider any other clubs once I knew I could join up with Arsene.
You went eight games without scoring
at Arsenal and even hit the clock at the Clock End with one woeful shot. At that moment, did you fear that you weren’t going to make it?
Robbie Murray, via e-mail
That story of hitting the clock at the Clock End is my story, that’s what I always say to people. But no, I didn’t worry because it’s not in my temperament to think like that. I kept working, kept practising in front of goal and eventually it started to happen.
Seven years on, what are your most cherished memories of your time at Arsenal? Best goal? Best moment?
Steve Pears, North London
I think the best memory will always be going through the whole season unbeaten [in 2003-04], breaking the record and holding on to our invincibility. That’s a hell of an achievement in English football, what with all the tough games there are here. And nobody will ever be able to take that away from us.
Talk us through the socks over the knees look. Why? Whose idea was it? And did you do it for a bet?
Mike Honeywell, via e-mail
Sonny Anderson is the answer.
Do you regret that incredible rant at Graham Poll at Highbury (vs Newcastle in 2001) when you had to be pulled away several times after the final whistle?
It seemed a bit out of character...
Neil Kateley, Ealing
This is another one of those incidents that some people misinterpreted. Some of my team-mates came over to pull me away, yes, but only because they thought I was going to lose it. That wasn’t the case. They were trying to pull me away and I was telling them that I wasn’t going to touch him and that made it look nastier than it really was, which often happens in those sort of flashpoints. When I went over to Poll, there was no one around, so if I had wanted to touch him, I’d have touched him. I just wanted to talk to him face to face. Eye to eye. I wanted an answer from him but he still hasn’t given me one. I told him that he had falsified the game, and he had. But he wasn’t man enough to admit it, and that was what made me angry.
I don’t know if you remember, but he sent off Craig Bellamy – I still don’t know what for – and sent off Ray Parlour for next to nothing. And then Sol Campbell pulls off an absolutely magnificent defensive move and he blows for a penalty! At the end of the game I simply asked why he had ruined the game: ruined it for Newcastle and ruined it for us. He wasn’t able to give me an answer. If you’re a man, you can reply. Everybody makes mistakes.
At what point during Arsenal’s ‘invincible’ season did the players really start to believe that you’d go the whole campaign unbeaten?
Sarah Campbell, Stevenage
We never thought about it. The only time we really said anything among ourselves was at Portsmouth, the third-last game of the season, when we went behind before drawing 1-1. I remember we said it would be silly to go and lose now with the end of season in sight. Maybe subconsciously we began to think about it in the last four or five games, but honestly, to think about it is the worst thing you can do. You start trying not to lose rather than playing your usual way. At Portsmouth we had a difficult first half, I remember Yakubu scored and had another chance clear through on [David] Seaman but he didn’t put it away.
You always seem to play well against Italian teams: why?
Gigi Mazzola, via e-mail
Funny, that, isn’t it? Especially as I hear so often that it’s easier to play against English defences...
I once saw a young female Arsenal fan with ‘Thierry Henry’ tattooed across her stomach. How does that make you feel?
Mimi Taylor, via e-mail
After one game a fan asked me to sign my autograph on his arm. I said, “Give me a piece of paper or something, because it’ll wash out on your arm,” but he said, “No, I’m going to get it tattooed over your signature”. I find that hard to understand because after all I’m just a footballer, I don’t save people’s lives or anything. You have to be a fan to understand. I have to say when he came back and showed me I was agreeably surprised. But I’m sometimes a bit ill at ease with that sort of thing.
They say you can get lost in London, but can you really go out on Hampstead Heath or for a coffee and croissant on a Sunday morning without a fuss?
Paul Ganley, via e-mail
Not entirely, of course, but much more than in other countries. For example, I can go shopping in Selfridges, no problem. I couldn’t go to the Galeries Lafayettes [equivalent Parisian store] like that. Here people might recognise you, say “Hi” or give you a wave, but that’s all. They don’t try to touch, they don’t behave in, shall we say, a Latin way. An English person is more distant. He may adore you just as much but he keeps his distance, he doesn’t need to touch you, talk to you, tell you he’s a fan.
Ketchup! Ketchup here, ketchup there, you put ketchup on everything! Don’t you want to taste the food?
What exactly is va va voom?
Ted Robson, Yorkshire
If he wants to know the meaning of va va voom, he can look it up in the dictionary. It’s in the dictionary now!
What’s the most mind-boggling English habit you’ve encountered?
Rose Simons, via e-mail
Ketchup! Ketchup here, ketchup there, you put ketchup on everything! Don’t you want to taste the food? [Laughs]
I’ve got a friend here, and if you give him spaghetti bolognese he’ll put ketchup on it. Give him spaghetti, he’ll put ketchup on it. Any kind of food, and he’ll put ketchup on it. I say to him “If you like it so much, drink it! Put a straw in the bottle, go for it!”
The other thing is gravy – all over the food, all over the plate until you can see nothing but gravy. I have a laugh with the guys in the team, I say: “Do you know what you’re eating? Can you taste anything with all that ketchup or gravy everywhere?”
At Arsenal we have a masseur who is just extraordinary. He takes his plate, and fills it with a bit of everything. He puts everything on the same plate! He puts his starter on one side, then some mashed potato, some pasta, some rice. Then he slaps a bit of meat on top of it all and drowns it in sauce. I say to him “Put your starter on one plate and then get up and go and get another one for your main dish?” I mean, if it’s a pre-match meal, OK, you might take a bit of pasta and a bit of rice on the same plate. Or if it’s an English breakfast, then you have several things that go together. But when I see them with their plates with salads, pasta, meat, sauce all together, you just have to laugh.
What exactly were you talking about with Ashley Cole and Robert Pires on
the last day at Highbury when you sat together in the centre circle when the stadium was almost completely empty?
Bradley Glen, Walthamstow
I remember saying to Robert that we had to savour those moments. It was the end of Highbury, a magical stadium. It’s in moments like that you see the difference with the youngsters – they’d all gone, running in different directions – but I didn’t want to quit Highbury, and that’s why I stayed there with Ashley and Robert.
When I arrived at Arsenal Christopher Wreh had the number 12, so I took a number that was free.
Was Highbury quiet compared to other Premiership grounds? And were the players asked what they’d like for the new stadium?
Adam Ridley, Thorpe
There were perhaps stadiums which made more noise but Highbury wasn’t only about that. It was the place as a whole... It’s difficult find the words for it. People liked to bring up the old Highbury-library thing but it will always hold special memories and a special place in my heart.
As for the new ground, we weren’t really consulted, but the only thing we were concerned about was could they possibly produce a pitch as wonderful as Highbury? The stadium is one thing, but if the pitch is not a great one then it’s no good. The great news is that the new pitch is extraordinary. It’s so important for us at Arsenal, because we play one-touch or two-touch football. Instead of taking three touches to control the ball, you can control it instantly. People sometimes don’t understand that, but the state of the pitch is crucial to the way we play. The new pitch is also wider, which will suit us.
Why do you wear No.14 for Arsenal and No.12 for France? Is it superstition or homage – and if so, to whom?
Gary Spencer, via e-mail
The 12 because Marco van Basten had the 12 at the 1988 European Championship, and the 14 because that’s what I was given! Simple as that – nothing special behind it. When I arrived here Christopher Wreh had the number 12, so I took a number that was free. He would have given it to me but I don’t like that sort of thing, taking a number off someone who’s already at the club. He was a friend of mine, as well, but even if I hadn’t known him I wouldn’t have accepted it.
Do you like British comedy? Have you got into The Office? What about Only Fools and Horses?
Diane Pilkington, Bury
I have to say I have trouble with your humour. Sometimes my wife will laugh at something and I just don’t get it. What are you laughing at? I don’t understand the humour. But I laugh all the time at Little Britain. Matt Lucas is an Arsenal fan – but I’d laugh anyway! Only Fools and Horses – yeah, sometimes. But The Office is just impossible for me. Maybe you have to know what it’s like to work in an office to understand it, to get it.
Is it true that you once paid a man to hang a picture in your house? If so, could you not have done it yourself, it’s really very easy...
Matt Barnes, Tasmania
I’m not going to even answer that one. I don’t know where people get some of this stuff from!
You’ve never been known for diving and, indeed, attacked Barça’s players for doing so, yet during the World Cup, Carlos Puyol brushed your chest and you went down clutching your face. Did you make a conscious decision to go to ground, and do you regret it now?
OK, this is a very simple one. Carlos Puyol is a nice guy but there was foul after foul after foul, and the referee didn’t have the guts to do what needed doing. In the end I was actually being penalised because I wasn’t going down. It was the same in the Champions League Final: he committed two really big fouls on me, but I didn’t go down and he didn’t get the card he deserved. After a while I turned to the referee and said, “OK, you can wave play on, but you have the power to come back to the foul once the ball is out of play.” He said, “Yes, but you didn’t go down.” What’s that got to do with it?
First half of our match at the World Cup, when the ball’s not even near us, Puyol comes across and elbows me. I look at the referee and he says, “You have the advantage, play on.” In the second half, same thing. He puts his hand in my face at one stage – nothing. I said, “Next time, I’ll fall.”
For the incident the question refers to, I’m running for a ball that [Mariano] Pernia should get easily because I’m a bit late on it. I see Puyol move across to block me and I try to run around him but he takes that extra step to block me. Now I like basketball, where blocking has its place, but not in football. What with the Champions League Final, that was the last block on me by Puyol and I went down. Maybe it’s not good, but after a while you realise you aren’t doing yourself any favours by staying on your feet. For me, it’s justified.
What did Marco Materazzi say to provoke Zinedine Zidane’s headbutt in the World Cup Final?
Gunner Bob, via e-mail
I don’t know and I don’t want to know.
What did Zidane say to the rest of the team after the World Cup Final? Was he angry, ashamed, upset?
Glyn Price, via e-mail
Of course he was annoyed but the team forgave him straight away. How could it be otherwise after all he has brought to French football?
France 1998 vs France 2006: who wins?
Matt Harrison, Coventry
Ooh! I don’t know. As it is, there would be some players who’d have to play one half for each team. You’ve got one team which won the World Cup and one which didn’t, but you’ve got one team that played at home and one that didn’t. Really, I don’t know – I’m just happy to have been a part of both of them.
Who’s the best strike partner you’ve ever had? Or do you prefer to play up front alone?
Lee Atherton, Manchester
[Without even a second’s hesitation] Dennis Bergkamp. Dennis.
If money was no object, which player would you most like Arsene Wenger to sign to play alongside you this season?
Mike Francis, Ashford
I really don’t know. Sometimes you can sign a player who you think will be great for the club and he isn’t, it doesn’t work out – and vice versa. You can want star players but you never know how they’ll fit in, that’s for sure. And then sometimes you get a player no one knows who turns out to be a pearl. Look at how Arsene fought to get Cesc Fabregas when no one knew who he was and then look at him now. Same for Kolo Toure. It’s not a question of wanting big players, it’s about bringing in players who can help.
Is it dispiriting going up against Chelsea knowing that whatever points Arsenal accumulate, they can just go out and buy anyone they want when the transfer window opens?
Neil, via e-mail
People talk too much about money, money, money. Putting all the best players in the world into the same team is no guarantee of success. Chelsea deserve credit for the way they play and compete as a team. They go out there and fight and it’s not easy for them each week. They often manage to score late goals to get the result they need, and that’s the sign of a great team. Obviously it helps if you have lots of top players, but having the best players doesn’t mean you’re going to have a winning team.
Do you count any non-footballing celebrities among your circle of friends? If so, who?
Adrian Read, via e-mail
Yes. But I keep them to myself!
Who’s the most difficult centre-back you’ve been marked by?
John Quay, via e-mail
It’s hard to say. Of course John Terry would be among them, Sol Campbell, Ledley King, William Gallas. But you know I’ve also had tough games against defenders who might not be among your obvious candidates. At times it’s a war out there – when you go to Blackburn, Bolton, Everton, you know you’re going to have to battle. It makes me laugh when I hear some say it’s easy in England! They should come and play some of those type of games and take the knocks that come your way. Sometimes those matches are the hardest.
Is Theo Walcott the (English) Thierry Henry of the future? And are you helping him to become that? Please say yes...
Andy Kerr, Hove
I don’t like comparing one player to another. But he has the potential, enormous potential. I hope he will fulfil it.
You’ve got the looks, style and flair to move into movies: could you be the first French James Bond? If not, what kind of films would you like to star in?
Claire Thomas, via e-mail
No. For now I’m happy to be a footballer and I have no pretensions of one day being an actor. To be an actor you’d have to be good at acting and it’s hard enough being a footballer!
As you near the end of your career, have you thought much about life after playing? Will you stay in London?
Martin Henriques, Waverly
I find it hard to project myself into the future. I like to think I’ve got a few more years in my legs before I have to think about what comes next. But I do think it would be something in the world of football. I can’t imagine it not being in football.
London? For sure. I know it might sound strange coming from a Frenchman, but London is what I call home. When I think of home, I think of London. And I think I’ll always live here. London has adopted me, the people have adopted me, the fans have adopted me, and that’s something I’m proud of. It’s not necessarily an easy thing to achieve when you arrive in a new country as a foreigner.
This interview was originally published in the October 2006 issue of FourFourTwo.