The Philippe Auclair Interview: Part II – Thierry Henry and France
In this part, Philippe and Jeremy talk about Henry’s controversial history with Les Bleus, including the Hand of Gaul and Knysna.
JS: Why is he loved in England and, maybe, reviled in France?
PA: The funny thing is that, in France, outside the football world, he still has a positive image, judging by polls and studies for the most popular sportsman. But very often they are people who are not interested in sports, so they will name Yannick Noah and Zidane – Noah played his last game over 15-20 years ago and Zizou has been retired for a while now, as a player.
Within football he always had this image of being quite aloof and distant and quite manipulative. This is the reputation that he’s got in the media, but he also has it amongst people who love football; people who will read for example France Football will not necessarily have a very positive image of Thierry.
I think, as well, one of the problems is that, even though he is France’s record goalscorer, there is this weird idea that he failed to deliver for France. Which I find astonishing, but it’s true! I mean, he was top scorer in 1998, he was probably our best player in 2000, he scored the goal against Brazil in 2006 [the only assist he ever received from Zidane for France], he scored the goal that took us to the  World Cup, in Ireland.
He was pretty much top scorer in every major tournament – even in 2002, he scored as many as anyone else!
That’s quite funny! And in the Confederations Cup of 2003, he was superb in that tournament [Henry won the Golden Ball and the Golden Boot, for best player and top scorer], and it was the Zidane-free tournament. And even in Euro 2004, he was absolutely knackered on the back of that incredibly draining season with Arsenal, but he wasn’t awful, there were others who were far worse.
But I think he suffered from that – he suffered from the fact that there was this idea, this theory, that he and Zidane were adversaries, were rivals, with Zizou very much reluctant to pass on the keys of the team to his natural successor, who was of course Thierry. And then of course there was the Hand of Gaul in Dublin. And then there was Knysna. And Knysna, he didn’t come out of that well at all. That probably explains why people have got quite a different attitude.
I mean also, his career happened outside France. His career was Arsenal, then Barcelona, then the Red Bulls. When he was at Monaco, it was not a time of unmitigated triumph. He had problems there, serious problems. He also had great moments, in Europe in particular. He was a kid – but a kid who was already considered, already seen, at the age of 18 or 19, as the superstar of tomorrow.
But then Zidane and other members of the 1998-2000 squad, most of them played abroad, and yet…
Zizou left later, he had this fantastic year with Bordeaux before he left. He was 23 when he left, 23, 24. But Zizou has always been very good at playing that humble chap with the lovely smile – my mother loves his smile – it’s true he’s got a lovely smile – when he is just as determined and just as manipulative, if not more, than Thierry. He is a tough bugger. You would have to be.
Reading the book I got the impression that, on the human side, you’re not really an Henry man, but that on the Henry vs Zidane point, you were slightly more on Henry’s side?
With Thierry I’m like many people. I’m torn between the two aspects, the player, the artist – and the man, who is … what can I say? … I know him and I don’t know him! And I’m not sure that anybody knew him.
I still don’t understand what people wanted from Thierry for France which he didn’t do, I still don’t understand it, I really don’t.
You mention in the preface how lots of players have an image that immediately springs to mind, but that Thierry doesn’t. Has that changed for you? Not all images are good? You mention the Maradona handball. And there is also the Zidane headbutt.
But it was a very elegant headbutt, wasn’t it! Only Zizou could have made it so elegant. And it was Materazzi so it shouldn’t count! Why did he snap then? He cost us the title. On the other hand, the thought of Raymond Domenech World Champion is something that I would find very difficult to appreciate.
That’s one person that you are in no doubt about in the book!
What an absolute… anyway!
In 2006, for both Arsenal and France, he played as a lone front man, even though it wasn’t his position. And he did it, he kept quiet…
Absolutely. Which is also why he was absolutely knackered when the World Cup arrived. He didn’t have the greatest of World Cups. He still scored that goal against Brazil! He wasn’t ridiculously good, but he was asked to play alone up front.
His goals got France through the group stage too.
Absolutely. So he did what he had to do, in a role which was not his natural role, at the end of a very long season in which he’d had to work an awful lot. And he played in the two biggest finals of the year. And people are criticising him!
And he scored his share of very important goals for France. But people seem to have forgotten about that. It seems incredible.
Also I think that from 1993-94 to 2004, apart from 2001 when he didn’t play in the Confederations Cup, he didn’t have a summer – every single summer he represented France.
Absolutely. Every single summer. As soon as he joined the under 15s he was playing through the summer as well. He never had a holiday. Apart from 2001. It’s extraordinary.
As a player, where do you put Henry in the pantheon for France?
What is extraordinary is that he is still not considered to be one of the three greatest French players. People still say Kopa, Platini, Zidane. For me I really don’t get it. He was better than Kopa! Kopa was a great player, but he was great for how many years? He had a shortish career in some ways – certainly with France it was a very short career – and he only really sparkled for a couple of seasons. With Reims he was superb, but how can you compare the years? And he was not the best player at Real Madrid; Di Stefano was, and Puskas was. And then there was Kopa – him or Gento. But still people keep putting Thierry out of the list. It might change now.
So, yes, top 3. Platini still ahead of everybody.
[Platini] didn’t always behave very elegantly. Since that 1978-1986 team was the team that I grew up with and I venerated and, for me, remains the best French team ever, there is no way that I’m going to touch, you know – God! Because, you know, a biography of Platini is something that I thought about for a long time, and which I think would be fascinating. Nobody’s done it, which is odd, isn’t it? He’s only the greatest French player ever, one of the greatest players that Serie A has ever seen, some people would say perhaps the greatest player – certainly of that era – the guy who was getting best goalscorer every year – at a time when Maradona was playing in Italy for Christ’s sake – playing in midfield! It’s astounding!
That was a good time! I was devastated when I heard he was not going to play anymore. I thought, he’s only 31, it’s not possible! But the knee had gone, he had no choice. That’s the greatest game we ever played – in 1986 against Brazil – that remains one of the greatest games ever played. I watched it again 5 or 6 weeks ago. I was marvelling. We don’t see football like this anymore. The technical level has dropped. And it’s funny that. Everybody talks about the tempo – that things are much quicker, much faster, it’s more difficult. People say there was far more space, but it’s because they create space all the time, because technically the guys are so good. You look at some things and you think my gosh, I don’t see that in the Premier League anymore, I don’t see that even in La Liga, this type of subtle touches of the football, intelligence.
But it’s strange – Henry’s got the titles – World champion, European champion, he played a very big part in getting those titles. He should have had the Ballon d’Or perhaps twice. I mean 2003 it’s ridiculous that he doesn’t get it – he’s head and shoulders above everybody. And 2006 as well – I mean you can understand it goes to Italy because [they won the World Cup]. But to Fabio Cannavaro? Anyway!
It might have changed now. People are starting to forget who Raymond Kopa was and people will soon have forgotten who Platini was – even though it’s sacrilegious!
Platoche and Henry. They are very different types of personality. They are both quite manipulative – Platini to the nth degree of course. Platini is very franchouillard – very typically French. Henry is a lot more gentle!
I feel that part of the problem with Henry is that he was too good during his career. Good as in gentil [well-behaved] rather than a good player. Maybe if he’d shown more of a different side to him on the pitch – as we’ve spoken about Cantona, Zidane – if he’d done more controversial things?
The guy who is at the top of the tree from 2000-2005 is just perfect behaviour – and whilst being dished some very rough treatment indeed – when they could get close to him, that is!
But you might be right – it may have played against him that there was no moment of darkness, so to speak. There are some players who walk between the raindrops, like Ryan Giggs – I think it’s one caution in… I can’t remember but the figures are extraordinary. But compared to a Cantona, a Steven Gerrard, even a Lampard – they did have their moments. But Thierry… so therefore everything seems a little bit… it’s very, very high, but it’s a plateau – it doesn’t have the peaks that people remember. With Cantona, people remember the volley against Liverpool in the 1996 FA Cup Final. The Leeds fans will remember the goal against Chelsea. Or that goal against Sunderland.
The one against Wimbledon as well.
Wimbledon is great, Wimbledon because it’s a moment of the purest aesthetic, incredible beauty. But the goal against Sunderland is everything – the build-up, the weight, the celebration and the smile, the smile when he sees his teammates.
And then, the handball…
Even then, if it had been another player, would it have been such a scandal? I mean Robbie Keane did something far worse for Ireland against Georgia, and I don’t know that he has such a stain on him. Nobody thinks that he’s an angel, or a saint.
OK, Henry shouldn’t have celebrated the way he did, that’s the mistake.
Especially as he doesn’t usually celebrate.
Exactly. And you know, he also said, well it was Gallas [who scored], we were born on the same day, we went to Clairefontaine together… Come on – you’re not the closest of friends, we know that! And then the whole thing with Richard Dunne at the end, that was bad, I didn’t like that at all. If he had gone up to them and said “I’m really sorry I’ve done it”… but I don’t think that was the dialogue.
But it rankles, it rankles. And especially since there were so many nice guys on that Irish team, those guys were really great. You know, Kevin Kilbane is one of the loveliest men in football as well, Shay Given. But it was like “the bastards have won”. To say that about your own country – it’s horrible! And that’s one thing I can’t get over, I will really never get over it.
I wonder if it would have been different if France had dominated the match but just hadn’t scored…
Yeah, or had a penalty denied, or – I don’t know – one of the players had been injured by a bad tackle by Sean St. Ledger or Keith Andrews! [Laughs] It’s true. But the fact is that the Irish were the better side, were playing the better football. I remember thinking at the time I know where the next goal is going to come from and it’s not going to be from someone in a blue shirt. We were all convinced of it. And I think that they knew it.
It’s strange because – I don’t know, it’s only a personal opinion – but is there a moment that you associate with Thierry which immediately comes to mind? There’s loads of moments, loads of images – you know, the goal against Manchester United, the way he flicked the ball on his chest [sic], you remember that. But I’m also wondering if it’s a product of the TV age, perhaps, more than anything else. It’s giving you the impression that you were there when you weren’t. And giving far greater relief – in the proper sense – to an event which was actually quite flat to start with. And I’m convinced about that – I’m actually going to write something about that – I think people don’t know how to watch football anymore, I think their perception of football is wrong. They watch too much television, there are too many replays, too much slo-mo, people don’t understand the game anymore. I really do think that. People who do understand the game are people who go to stadiums, who don’t rely on the jumbotron to tell them what happened.
For me, in trying to think of Thierry Henry images, the two that sprang to mind were from the 1998 World Cup – the one you mentioned in the book where he’s hiding behind Trezeguet [during the penalty shoot-out against Italy] and after the final when he’s dancing. But neither of the them are him in action.
The image is of Trezeguet and Titi (7.10 in). It’s both of them. It’s a wonderful picture.
But then should he need to have an image? If he has 7, 8 seasons in a row of prolific goalscoring, is that not enough?
Yes, in a way, as you say, it became banal. Which is odd, isn’t it? Perhaps he suffered from being a very clean athlete – I mean, I can only think of two occasions on which he… I mean there was the thing with Carles Puyol when he got that free kick against them [Henry milked a Puyol challenge in the 2006 World Cup second round to win a free kick which led to France taking a 2-1 lead]. That was naughty of him – but Puyol deserved it, because he should have had 17 free kicks against him before that!
But Henry gave everything for France. So it seems a bit unfair that…
But Canto gave a lot to France as well, and has never been acknowledged – what he has given to France has never been acknowledged and should have been. Canto has got a better goalscoring record for France than Zidane and almost of all his goals in official competitions. I think it’s 20 or 21 goals in 49 games [it’s 20 in 45] – remembering that Eric didn’t play as a centre-forward, and he often played as a subsidiary midfielder. It’s a very good goalscoring record. And at a time when France is not doing great.
And also, he’s the one guy, after those horrible games against Israel and Bulgaria, who said to Jacquet “I will carry on”. The day that France was beaten by Bulgaria. And all of them – Blanc – all of these guys said that’s it, I’ve had it, I’m not carrying on. Blanc was saying he’s not going to play for France again. Deschamps, Blanc. There were quite a few. Or at least made themselves unavailable for a period of time – because they were quite young still. But in the case of Canto, he said “I’m here, I will give all the help I can”. Fantastic. His attitude was wonderful. And he became the captain.
But Thierry never had that of course, that smell of sulphur around him, until very late. And perhaps that’s why people are being unfair to him, in many ways. Because when you write a book like this, you’re having a constant argument with yourself. You write one thing and then say “you can’t write that!” Then you write something else – “you can’t say that!”
I just wanted to talk about Knysna. Those two chapters – the Hand of Gaul and the Knysna chapter – were, for me, as a French football fan and as a Francophile, heartbreaking.
They were heartbreaking to write too, I can tell you that. But it had to be said, it had to be written, because in France it’s the debate [on national identity and on the problem of the banlieues] that nobody wants to have. I absolutely despair. People outside of France don’t realise what’s going on and in France nobody is talking about it. The strength of reaction in the country after Knysna… It’s only a football game! OK, what they did was not particularly good – it was unacceptable. But the reaction to it… It shows you that it’s not the team that is sick – it’s the country that is sick.
I agree with that. But do you think that what happened in Knysna was to do with what is going on in the country, or was it just a bunch of spoilt brats, and the country grabbed onto it?
Spoilt brats – yes, perhaps. A completely corrupt regime – yes, at the FFF certainly. And the asphyxiating effect of the Domenech era – which Domenech shouldn’t be held entirely responsible for, he was a major actor but there were many other people who were involved in that – all these people who basically got fat on what happened in 1998 and 2000 and just thought about their own interests and let French football fall into a state of entropy, basically. They didn’t look at the structures, they didn’t look at the youth policy, the need to renew our pyramidal system. They didn’t think about that. All they were worried about was… well it’s like what happened in 2002 and the scandal at the Sheraton and all the stories that I couldn’t put in the book, the incredible behaviour of the players and the officials. It’s a continuity of that, which was masked by some great performances in between, but the corruption was there.
And yes, it was revelatory of what I would call the so-called Nasri Generation, who are footballers who have got very – we’re living in an age where we have to be very careful with our choice of words, but I don’t think these people have much of an idea of what playing for their country means – wherever they come from by the way, I really think that there’s a huge problem there. In France in particular. It’s very odd, this disassociation that there is within the country. It is one thing I’ve done in the Cantona book and I’ve done in the Henry book and I will do for the next book as well – what is happening in France is a catastrophe in waiting, the way we’ve cut ourselves off from a huge part of the population – and this population is cutting itself out as well.
But Knysna demonstrated on one hand this horrible “youth” culture which is now prevalent in France – and also the completely hysterical reaction, which was, shall we say, politically suspicious. There is a contradiction. It’s really odd. I don’t quite understand it. It is paradoxical, because it is a country that on one hand is completely fractured, but on the other it’s La Republique! If there is one milieu in France which is not racist, it is football. Stop it guys – stop it guys!
But it’s one thing I’m hoping – the next generation seems to be different. I think it’s a real problem with that famous 1987 generation, if you look at them – there was a lot of talent there, all of which has gone to seed, almost.
This new generation [the Under 20s] looks like a different bunch of kids. And the FFF showing their great foresight by sacking their manager [Pierre Mankowski] before he wins the world title! [Laughs] It’s so funny! Only in France can you imagine a scenario like that! I mean, we stuck with Domenech for how long – 8 bloody years! Then we win the Under 20s world title and we know we’ve already lost our manager! Even though we were very, very lucky.
But also, the cause for hope is the fact that this title was won with very different values. There was a lot of hard work and resilience involved, and genuine team spirit – it’s obvious that these guys get on very well together, that they are a real ‘commando’. For which the manager of the team has to take a lot of credit! It was not always so easy. Whereas the 1987 team was so talented it was ridiculous.
Your condemnation of Henry for Knysna – for me there are two things – there’s the bus; and then there’s Le Bourget and the interview. That second bit is disgraceful. Does that colour your and France’s view of him more than the bus? Because I understand what you said about how he could have and should have got off the bus, but I can also understand why he didn’t.
But that was the moment that he has probably always longed for. I don’t know, maybe I’m putting things in his mind, it’s just suppositions of course. But for a player of a great reputation – not just as a goalscorer but as a footballer, as somebody who represents the best values in football – he had, brought to him on a plate, with parsley all around it! – this is your chance, Thierry Henry, to become a national hero. To be the guy who says “I’m not staying there striking, I’m representing my country, I’m going out and I’m going to train”. And if none of the others had followed him, people would have said “oh, well he did the right thing, the others are a bunch of idiots”. And it just might have had a direct effect on some of his younger teammates, who are easily influenceable, and who were perhaps in awe of some of their elders. And if Thierry Henry, for goodness sake, if he comes up and says “we’ve come to play, I’m getting out” – he could have been the Pied Piper of Hamelin.
And he didn’t do it. So, of course, not doing something, it’s not a criminal offence. But he missed a fantastic opportunity to become a true hero of French football. And he decided, in the end, not to do a thing or say a thing, didn’t comment to anybody, boycotted the press.
But why did [Henry] do as [he] did, after Knysna, arriving at Le Bourget airport, in a motorcade, going to the Elysees Palace to talk to Nicolas Sarkozy about what happened in South Africa? What the fuck was that about?! Did you see the interview with Michel Denisot after Knysna? It’s excruciating. Excruciating. You would think that if he agrees to do that interview, he’s going to talk. But it’s just an exercise in self-justification. And he’s so prickly, and he’s so one-eyed. And you think, “Thierry, we’re not stupid, we can see through you, and you’re not stupid”. It would have been better not to give the interview at all. If you do the interview, go through it. And I think that did him a lot of harm.
He – the greatest goalscorer that France has ever known – surely you’ve got a responsibility, a duty? And he didn’t do it.
And it’s funny because the whole story of Nasri and the place on the bus [Nasri refused to move from Henry’s place on the team coach during Euro 2008], shows that he belongs to a different category, a different generation. What really scandalised him is that, when Nasri took his seat, I’m pretty sure that Thierry thought “young man, when I was your age, I was carrying my elders’ bags, putting them in the bus, and sat where I was told to sit”. And I think he’s got this ethic in him. And I would have thought that, in Knysna, that ethic would have come to the fore – “no, we can’t have that”. Instead of which he decided well, I’m keeping out of this, I’m not going to be any trouble, I’m just ignoring it. Retreating within his bubble again, when it was one of the moments when he should have pricked the bubble and jumped out of it.
If he’d been the only one to come off the bus, wouldn’t some people have said “there you go again – Thierry being a loner, not being a team man”?
Perhaps. But I think that – well it certainly wouldn’t have calmed the waters but, what can we say, we don’t know what would have happened. He still should have done it! But as you say, quite rightly, it’s not a crime, what he did. It’s a missed opportunity. He misjudged everything. It’s a misjudgement more than anything.
In Part III, Philippe talks about Arsenal’s current French contingent of Wenger, Koscielny, Giroud, Diaby and Sanogo, about the France Under-20s’ World Cup victory and les Bleus’ future prospects, and about his expectations for the coming Ligue 1 season.