AS Monaco had started the 1994-95 season catastrophically. Beset by injuries, Arsène Wenger’s team had been hobbling from defeat to draw to defeat when OGC Nice, their fiercest local rival, visited the Stade Louis II on 31 August 1994. Rumours of the manager’s sacking were already circulating, even though he’d just turned down an offer to coach Bayern Munich out of loyalty for the Monegasque club he’d joined in 1987 and taken to the French League title, a European Cup Winners’ Cup final and – only a few months earlier – to the semi-finals of the European Cup. With his star striker Sonny Anderson unavailable, Wenger turned to a young forward from the Parisian banlieues who’d racked up goals at an astonishing rate with ASM’s reserve and youth teams over the previous two years. Thierry Henry had celebrated his 17th birthday two weeks previously. Monaco lost 2-0 against the Niçois. They lost again in the following round, 1-0 to Le Havre, when the teenager came off the bench to no great effect. Wenger was soon gone and it would only be two seasons later that Henry, under the prudent tutelage of Jean Tigana, exploded onto the French football scene. But one of the most prodigious careers in modern football history, certainly in terms of honours and longevity, had been launched on 31 August 1994. France Football thought it right to mark the 20th anniversary of Henry’s debut with a special issue, although not everyone in France would have thought it necessary to celebrate this milestone with such fanfare.

The shadow of Knysna 2010 still obscures the perception the French public has of their national team’s record goalscorer. Many feel he could have prevented France’s very public meltdown at the World Cup in South Africa. Only he had the prestige, the status and the authority to put an end to the farce that was played out live on the world’s TV networks: players refusing to train and taking shelter in the team bus while their hapless manager Raymond Domenech was delivering an absurd statement on their behalf to the assembled media. Henry could and should have nipped that pathetic rebellion in the bud, but he chose to keep his own counsel. What made him retreat into silence is a secret he has kept from everyone but his closest friends, who have kept silent themselves. When he returned from the World Cup, it was to be whisked away to the Elysée palace, escorted by a phalanx of police motorcycles. What he told President Nicolas Sarkozy in the hour-long talk which followed, no one knows but them. An interview he granted to a French TV station several days later only added to the mystery surrounding the whole sorry episode, as Henry refused to answer the question everyone was asking in France: what on earth happened? Why did he do nothing? Why had he chosen to ignore the best chance he’d ever been offered in football?

Still, despite Knysna, despite the Hand of Gaul scandal in the World Cup qualifying play-off against the Republic of Ireland, Henry’s position in the French football pantheon, behind only Michel Platini and Zinédine Zidane, is assured. Alone among the Bleus of his generation, he has chosen to carry on playing well past his 35th birthday in a genuinely competitive league – and as a striker, when his most potent weapon had always been sheer pace, with or without the ball at his feet. The lesser demands of MLS suited his ageing body, that’s true, but that did not and does not mean that the prime reason behind his move had been to freewheel towards retirement. Even in what should be his last season, he can still be decisive. The USA was another box to tick in the career plan he’d drawn for himself when he was still at Monaco. Done. This too was worthy of celebration. But we had a problem: how could we hold the party without the birthday boy himself to blow out the candles? Apart from routine press conferences and a few sponsors’ engagements, Henry had not spoken at length with any journalist for more than four years. It was decided that my colleague Thierry Marchand would fly to New York on a wing and a prayer. Henry has always been unpredictable. He might just – if approached at exactly the right moment – agree to talk to us, even after politely declining all the approaches that had been made to him previously. Fortune smiled on us. Henry was taking part in a shirt-signing session in a Manhattan sports shop. The journalist queued with the fans, the player recognised him and welcomed him like a long-lost friend. It was agreed the two would meet a couple of days later at the New York Red Bulls training ground, where the conversation that follows took place.

When you look back and think of your first game as a professional, do you say to yourself: ‘it is so long ago’ or ‘it seems like yesterday’?

[He hesitates] A bit of both. But what I tell myself, above all, is that not everything [that happened] was always set in stone. At the same time, I’m always aware of the road I’ve followed, and of the work I’ve had to do to stay on course. Especially that it’s not a given in my kind of position. I insist on the word ‘work’, as it is the basis of everything. You may have a gift, but if you don’t work… It wasn’t a sacrifice for me. I do what I wanted to do. I loved working and I wanted to be the best at everything: the way I headed the ball, free-kicks, reading of the game…

In your case, what was that “gift”?

I was quick. I had to have 10 chances to convert one into a goal – but at the same time, I kept creating these chances. Then I told myself, “You won’t have these chances all the time. You must stick them into the net.” Then, to avoid over-thinking in front of the keeper, you work on your finishing, so that it all becomes automatic, so that you don’t think anymore. The hardest thing for an attacking player? When he has time to think. So, with Claude Puel, who was then a fitness coach at Monaco, I went through session after session with dummies. I wasn’t born with a gift for goals. As I started my professional career on the wing, I also worked on my crossing – which helped me understand the role of the guy who passes the ball. We give praise to the guy who scores and, as a result, we’re too quick to forget the guy who bust a gut to cross the ball behind the defence.

And that’s unfair, in your opinion?

No, that’s the way it is. How many times did I save games in which I’d been poor by scoring the winning goal? But it helped me to understand things better when I played in the middle again. I’ve often been told, when talking about Dennis Bergkamp or Robert Pires, “These guys have fed you.” – No, we fed each other. It’s a team game. The goalscorer shouldn’t have all the glory and I’m not humble-bragging. I’ve often been unhappy with games in which I’d scored.

What difference is there between the joy of scoring and the joy of providing the assist?

To me, the most beautiful thing is making the pass when you are in a position to score yourself. You know you’re good enough to score, but you give the ball. You share. And you see that joy in the eyes of the other guy. You know, he knows, everyone knows. People have never understood that when I do that [Henry mimics a gathering gesture, his hands above his shoulders], that’s not to say, “Come and see me, I’ve scored!” but, “Come here, so that we celebrate together, so that we savour it together.”

But haven’t celebrations become a show, a game in themselves?

I’ve often been criticised for not smiling or even for putting on a long face when I celebrate my goals. It’s often because I’d missed something just before. I’d got the ball back a few seconds later and scored – but I was still aggrieved by what I’d done wrong. Those who know me will tell you that it can take me 10 minutes to get over a mistake. Even if we lead 7-0. Because in my head, I tell myself, “It could have been the only chance of the game, I should have dealt with it better.”

Are you constantly looking for perfection?

It enables me not to rest on my laurels, to keep going forward. I’ve always been like that and I like being like that. My teammates will tell you that I have to be on edge to be good. Pat [Vieira] knew it and kept pestering me. It’s when I’m bothered that I play well.

What’s the secret of longevity for a player?

First, to avoid injury [he touches wood]. I’ve also had a fairly healthy lifestyle. I’ve never been someone who drank or partied regularly. I’ve been doing it – reasonably – for two or three years, but before that, never. I went home, I re-played the game in my head. I pictured all the chances I’d missed and told myself, “Next time, make sure you don’t miss that pass.” You’ve got to be beyond reproach, even when you’re playing in the back garden, in front of your cousin. I call that pride. If we play a one v one against each other, I have to make you feel that I’m stronger than you are. It’s as simple as that. Lilian Thuram taught me that. I’ve always wanted to be the best at home. Playing cards, playing marbles… Then I wanted to be the best in my street, in my neighbourhood, in my city, in my département, in my country. The aim is to be the best you can be. What matters is not to get there, but to want it, to have that desire.

So that “gift” is desire?

Exactly. Then it’s up to you – up to you to work or not, end of story. When I see guys turning up late for training, when we train an hour and a half a day… It happened to me once, in Monaco, and it wasn’t my fault. Jean Tigana made it clear to me that it would be the last time this happened and he was right. If you’re late for training when you’re driving a car, you’ll be late in the game when you’ll have to use your legs.

Have you ever questioned your worth throughout the 20 years of your career?

Every day! I’ve always wanted to be judged on the next game, not on the one I’d just played. What’s happened is behind me. It’s up to you journalists to comment on it.

But you’ve won everything, with your clubs and with the French national team. Have you never felt you’d reached the absolute top?

No. You should never feel satisfied. Aim higher, always.

How do you do that when you’re on top?

Every game is a mountain. Each time, you climb down, better to climb it again when another game comes. And each of these mountains is different. Sometimes, you stop and take a deep breath in. At other times, you don’t climb at all, because you’re crap.

But you don’t play a World Cup final every day…

What helps you to get back to earth after a World Cup final is when, three months later, you find yourself playing for the Under-23s in Ukraine, in front of 200 spectators [as happened to Henry in 1998]. People have erased this chapter from my story – but I’m proud of it. I won’t say it was easy to swallow, but it helped me question myself. I was part of that generation of players who played in the 1997 Under-20 World Cup in Malaysia – Silvestre, Gallas, Luccin – players who’d helped me go further. It hurt me to go back to the Espoirs, but I couldn’t look down on these guys. So I played. I was good on some occasions. On others, I was not. People said, “His heart is not in it.” But three months earlier, I had been lifting the World Cup trophy. Once, as part of the Espoirs team, I travelled with the A team. I was at the back of the plane when, just a few weeks before, I’d sat 10 rows further up. I even played in a B international against Belgium, in front of 202 spectators. Two more than in Ukraine. I haven’t forgotten that.

What was going through your mind then?

That I had to work and that things would get back to what they’d been before. It was a pain in the arse, but I did come back. You grow thanks to others. You’re nothing without your team, whoever you are.

Is longevity the toughest thing to achieve in football?

Yes. But it’s also the ultimate accolade – especially when you’re a striker, with all the young guys coming through. It’s not just a question of staying power, it is also an obligation to perform. There is no more beautiful trophy than longevity. Maldini, Zanetti, Zizou, Tutu [Thuram], Desailly, Liza, Blanc, Deschamps, Lama, Platini, Giresse, Tigana, Luis Fernandez… To stay at the same level, when people are expecting so much at each game… Ronaldo, Messi… Are people really aware of what they do, of their consistency of performance? Do they realise how tough it is to be always at the top?

What does it take to stay there? Energy?

And not a little bit. An awful lot of energy. People don’t realise that when we need rest, it’s not our bodies which need resting. When a World Cup is over and you’re given 10 days’ holiday, it’s tough. Yeah, I know – we’re well paid. But, mentally, it’s not that easy to start again, almost immediately. Tiredness has got nothing with what we earn in a month. I can count the games I’ve played at 100% of my capacities on the fingers of one hand. And I’ve played a few. Look at the Germans. They’re the world champions. And they have to start again from scratch. Nothing exists anymore – the achievement is behind them. They’ll only be able to savour it in 20 years time, when they have retired.

The sportsman, the star, has erased the human being…

That’s true, but that’s part of the game. “If you’re on the pitch, it’s because you can play.” I say that often. People don’t have to know whether you feel good or not. I’ve often come back to the dressing- room, telling myself, “Fuck it, Thierry, you just couldn’t do a thing today!” … But if you know how often I’ve scored a goal in those games… I remember a Champions League game with Arsenal, against Sparta, in Prague. I was just coming back from an Achilles injury, I’d only started training again on the eve of the match. The manager told me, “You’re travelling with us, but you’ll stay on the bench.” Then José Antonio Reyes gets injured after a few minutes. I wasn’t even looking at who was warming up, as I was certain I wouldn’t be asked to do it – and the manager tells me to get on. I do so, I score twice and I beat Ian Wright’s record of 185 goals with Arsenal. Even when you’re not feeling good, you always believe you can help the team.

Do you have to say no, sometimes, in order to last?

I’ve never been able to do that. Never ever. And all the great players do the same. Take Vieira. You had to knock him out to prevent him going on the pitch. He’s played games when he was unable to walk before or afterwards. And he wasn’t crap.

In which country, which league, is it easiest to last that long?

It depends on your playing style. I’ve never been sparing in my own game – but it was always the same style of play. Let’s just say the Premier League is tricky. Not just because of the physical intensity of the game, but because of the lack of a winter break. We play the most when others are having a rest.

Were you given advice when you started as a pro that you’ve never forgotten?

What Thuram told me, which I mentioned earlier. Tutu was very tough with me, but I thank him for that every day. My dad too, above all others. Christian Damiano, Gérard Houllier, all my youth coaches. But Tutu was tough, during the games, at training… His words were tough. It helped me. When you join the national team for the first time, you must impress Desailly, Liza, Zizou, Djorkaeff… At Monaco, when I didn’t cross a good ball in front of goal for Sonny Anderson or Mickaël Madar, they kicked it high above the wire fence of La Turbie [Monaco’s training ground]. And guess who had to go and fetch the ball? David Trezeguet and me. There was no artificial lighting at La Turbie in those days. In the middle of winter, we were training late in the afternoon, we couldn’t see a thing when we had to get the ball back. I can still picture myself. [Shouting] “I got one, David!” “Me too!” What else could I have done? Say, “The older guys talk badly to us, it’s a lack of respect?” But what kind of respect are we talking about? What had we achieved? Who were we? If Sonny asked me to cross the ball, I crossed it. When he asked to cross again, I crossed again. Even after I’d become a world champion, Tigana asked me to carry the kit bags. There was a woman and a couple of kit men who wanted to take care of it, but he said, “No, no, it’s up to the youngsters to do it.”

Do you do the same with the young Red Bulls players?

Very often… but when you’re the only one to say it…

A question of education, then…

When I was a young player at Monaco, there were no names on the lockers. I waited until all the pros had arrived to find a place to sit. In the team bus, when we left at 10am, I turned up two hours earlier to make sure I wouldn’t miss it. I stood there for two hours, waiting. I didn’t sit until I was told I could.

How does it feel to see these values disappear from the game?

It’s a pity. We’re losing something. Becoming a pro is not something that is owed to anyone. It shouldn’t be a reason to celebrate or an attainment it itself. When I was younger, I went to all the pros to say hello to them. Nowadays, it’s almost the other way round. I started getting massages when I was 21, 22. If Tigana saw us on the massage table, he said to us, “What are you doing here? Where do you hurt? Your back? You’ve played five seconds in Ligue 1 and you hurt? [He mimics Tigana’s voice and accent] Go train, go run, and leave your place for Franck Dumas or Enzo Scifo!” He was right.

You seem to get worked up about these kind of things…

Yeah. Too much, by the way. I lose it when a guy is late for training. Look around you. What is it that prevents the young guys coming and training this afternoon? Six years ago, the San Antonio Spurs provided Tony Parker with a shooting coach. Tony Parker. It wasn’t a lack of respect – just so that he could improve a part of his game which could be improved.

Is it this kind of adjustment which enables a footballer to last beyond his physical limits?

Me, I worked on my passing game. When I was young and I was playing on the flank, then when I played down the middle at Arsenal. And the slide-rule pass from the wing is a very different thing from the appreciation of the game you have in an axial role. But it’s just work.

What were the most striking changes that you noticed in the game itself over the past two decades?

Take Ronaldo – the Brazilian Ronaldo. He did things nobody had seen before. He, together with Romário and George Weah, reinvented the centre-forward position. They were the first to drop from the box to pick up the ball in midfield, switch to the flanks, attract and disorientate the central defenders with their runs, their accelerations, their dribbling. Who’d done that before? Gerd Müller? Paolo Rossi? No. George Weah was a big influence on me. I copied his game, maybe. But how many guys can claim they have reinvented a position? Not many. One of the consequences has been that there came a time when media and marketing people started to individualise football performance. People stopped highlighting the collective dimension of the game, how a goal was constructed, how a phase started. Maybe you remember the catchphrase of a kit supplier: “ten plus one”. It meant, “If you have a gift, you can win.” But Ronaldo is the only one who can do what he does. Then everyone wants to show off technical skills, sombrero tricks and so on. Everything has been geared towards the individual. We are not talking about football anymore. 

Physically speaking, Müller, Onnis, Rossi and Bianchi did not have much in common with Weah or Ronaldo…

Sure. But we shouldn’t believe that’s the norm. Who’s got Cristiano Ronaldo’s body? Lionel Messi’s game? They’re one-offs. But if you want to educate players, if you want to talk about the game, you can teach a youngster what Xavi does. Xavi, yes, you can do it. Ronaldo… not so sure. What’s true is that if I am shown step-overs and nutmegs on a loop, I’ll want to execute those on the pitch. When I was a kid, I wanted to be Boniek – on the end of a pass by Platini. Ronaldo executed a skill to go past an opposition player, not gratuitously. Not everyone is Zizou, Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. I’d like to have an explanation of the fact that no Spaniard has won the Ballon d’Or over the last four years. The game is too focused on the individual. Stars are fine. But within the team, not without.

That’s a very American perspective…

I’ll tell you: I grew up with Michael Jordan, who scored up to 60 points in some games at the beginning of his career. He scored fewer when Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant came to Chicago, but he started winning titles too. That’s the truth – he was a star within a collective. When you’re not at your best, the others conceal your weaknesses.

How does a footballer know when it’s time to call it a day?

[Lengthy pause] I don’t know. The love of football will always be there. But I think it’s when you start to force yourself to do it. I cannot say or think, “I must go to the training ground.” When you breathe, you don’t think about the act of breathing. It’s natural. Same with football. I’m not talking about a reticence that would be linked to a physical problem, I’m talking about the heart that’s not quite in it anymore. When you don’t feel like it, repeatedly.

What’s left when that happens?

The fundamentals. I didn’t learn football, I was educated. Not the same thing. At Clairefontaine, messieurs Dussault, Mérelle, Damiano, Filho educated us. Whether we lost or won, we had an identity. We had to play a certain way, we had to respect football. They put that in my veins. We all reflect the education we received. When my parents sometimes complain about my being hard, I answer, “Who educated me?”

And you think you’re hard?

Yes, I’m hard, demanding, a pain in the arse, especially when it’s about football. But always in the name of love and respect for the game.

When you talk of ‘identity’, what do you mean? A club, a style of play?

They go together. Barça have an identity. The most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard from a coach was Guardiola’s talk before the 2009 Champions League final. He said, “Guys, all I want is that, at the end of the game, people tell me that Barça played football. The only thing I don’t want us to lose tonight is our identity. Have a good game.” And that was that. It was the same at Clairefontaine. [On one occasion] Francisco Filho told us, “I do not want to see a back pass.” That was the theme of that particular game. But we also had to win. Another time, he forbade us to tackle for a whole game – he only wanted interceptions. In other words, he wanted to teach us how to read the game.

Isn’t that forgetting the game’s ultimate objective – to win?

No, because victory is forged in identity. It is when you forget the principles that winning becomes difficult.

Can this identity still exist in modern football?

Yes, at Barça. Win, but win playing well. Even the managerial changes haven’t altered the identity of the club.

What about you? If you were to become a manager, could you go anywhere?

The important thing for a manager is to affirm his identity, whatever it is. If your identity is defending, no problem. You can win that way. But you shouldn’t change it if you lose. In 2009, Guardiola didn’t talk about the result. The same goes for Arsène [Wenger] before the 2006 Champions League final. They are aesthetes, they want everything to be beautiful. You act that way when you love your work. When you paint a picture, it is so that people look at it and like it.

How do you feel now, twenty years after that first game?

I think a lot about the extra training sessions – work pays off. I kept telling myself, “If I don’t do this [right], someone else will do it instead of me. Maybe that guy’s already doing it. And if this guy wants to nick my place, I’ll be ready. Hats off to him if he’s better than me. But I’ll have prepared myself.” And I’d love to be remembered by people when my career is over. I’ve always dreamt of leaving a trace.

As a manifestation of respect?

Towards the quality of my work, yes. I’m immensely proud to have been part of these winning generations, with the Bleus, with Arsenal, with Barça. It’s also the proof that I wasn’t lied to.

By whom?

Tutu, who told me, “Work so that you can show you’re the best.” My father. Tigana, Puel and his demands, Damiano, Domenech with the Espoirs. All the people who were with me when I was becoming myself. I’d love you to give their names: Laurent Banide at Monaco, Paul Piétry with the U17s at Monaco as well, Jean-Marie Panza at Palaiseau… Lippi and Ancelotti in Italy. These people didn’t lie to me.

What if you had to pick one memory from those 20 years as a footballer?

[long pause] The first time that my father saw me on a football pitch. Because everything started there. The rest of the story, everybody knows it.

Will Thierry Henry, the manager, be as demanding as Thierry Henry, the player?

I’d certainly want people to respect football. It’s impossible to have a great career and be out partying at midnight. I’ve done it, like everyone else. But a mistake shouldn’t become a habit. For me, the pleasure lies in improving and being demanding with yourself. I cannot play a game to have fun. Either you play, or you don’t. Winning is only the end credits sequence of that particular film.

Interview by Thierry Marchand, text and transcription by Philippe Auclair.