World waits to crown Henry the First

Wenger: 'Thierry will get much better - because he wants to'
Click to follow
The Independent Football

If, as some would have us believe, the Premiership really is a boring League, then what is an entertainer like Thierry Henry doing here? Not looking for easy money - he could be earning more in Italy or Spain or for Chelsea's Roman Abramovich who last week offered an audacious £40m for him; not looking for an easy life, when he would be enjoying a far more private existence on the Continent; and not looking for an easy time on the pitch, when his pace would give him a far greater advantage in other European campaigns. What is Henry doing here? "I'm just looking to have fun," he says.

Judging by the way the Arsenal striker has been playing these last 12 months, it is hard to disagree. Others, most notably Zinedine Zidane and Ronaldo - the Frenchman's fellow nominees for the Fifa World Player of the Year award, which will be announced tomorrow in Basle - have shone as well, but the truth is that 2003 belongs to Henry.

Just ask his Arsenal and France team-mate Robert Pires, someone who has seen all three players in action at close quarters recently. "For me, Titi definitely deserves the award," he says. "He has been the most consistent player and I really hope that the people who make the decision [all national managers get one vote] remember that it's not about one-off performances; it's about being the best over 12 months in every competition. In the League, in Europe, or with the national team, Titi can mould himself into the team and yet still remain the star. Hot or cold, home or away, he delivers. Without doubt, 2003 has been a sensational year for Titi."

The statistics tally. Henry won the FA Cup with his club and the Confederations' Cup with his country, picking up the Golden Boot trophy in the latter competition. He finished second only to Manchester United's Ruud van Nistelrooy in the scoring charts with 24 goals. He was also fifth- equal best scorer in the Champions' League with seven strikes, an impressive return when you consider that last season Arsenal did not even reach the knock-out stages.

Henry is not only a prolific goal-scorer, he has also set up more goals than any other top striker. Last season, he recorded 23 assists, by far the best statistic in Europe. He has been at it again this term, creating two goals during Arsenal's impressive 2-0 defeat of Lokomotiv Moscow on Wednesday. According to Blackburn's manager, Graeme Souness, "the only way to stop him is with an AK47".

"Basically, he's a striker," Pires explains, "but what impresses me most is that he can do so much more now. He does so much work for the team. He defends when he has to, and he turns on the turbos when attacking. He is the most complete player in the world." Even better than Zidane? "Frankly, there is no argument to be had," the midfielder says. "Don't get me wrong, I love Zizou as well, but when you look at their respective performances this past year, Titi is streets ahead."

The man himself does not like blowing his own trumpet. What he will do, though, is sing the praises of his closest rival for the accolade. "Well, I've been playing with Zizou for a long time now," Henry says, with an admiring puff of the cheeks, "and he's something else. It's difficult to explain, but apart from his ability, which we can talk about all night, he's a great man; a great human being. "

In many ways, Henry has sought to mimic France's darling. He says he is flattered by the attention, but tries not to think about it too much. "No matter what is being said," explains the man who joined Arsenal in August 1999, "I can't just sit back and stay at home every day to read what people are writing. When I started to play football I just wanted people to recognise me for my game, and that hasn't changed. I know people are talking, but I just want them to talk about what I'm doing on the pitch."

Even after their qualification for a last- 16 tie with Celta Vigo, Henry's team-mates were discussing little else on Wednesday night. "For me, the great thing about Thierry is that he makes the game look so easy," says Dennis Bergkamp, who is so enjoying his football he wants to play on for one more year next season. "As a player you know it isn't easy, but he somehow has so much time on the ball. I'm lucky, I train with him every day, but if I didn't I would pay to go and watch him."

Only Arsenal team-mate Gilberto Silva, who happens to be one of Ronaldo's best friends, is sitting on the fence. "It is difficult to compare them because they are very different types of strikers," the Brazilian midfielder says. "It is impossible to decide and, in a sense, I would like them to share the trophy."

That cannot happen, but, should he win, Henry will almost certainly dedicate the award to his mentor. It was Arsène Wenger who plucked the 16-year-old Henry out of the National French Academy at Clairefontaine and then gave him his League debut at 17. It was Wenger who rescued Henry from his six-month Serie A nightmare by signing him from Juventus. And, crucially, it was Wenger who moved Henry back in from the wing to the point of the attack. "I can't quite explain the things that he's done for me," says Henry, who signed a new four-year contract in May. "Without him thinking about putting me back in my real position, in the centre, I'm certain I would not have done what I'm doing right now."

Wenger prefers to point to his protégé's strength of character in the wake of the Juventus fiasco. "For a player to develop," he says, "he has to go through a low. That is important. Those who survive become great players, and Thierry has done that. Now he has won the World Cup, the European Championship, the English League and the FA Cup, so he has not done too badly." Wenger believes there is yet more to come. "Thierry will get much better because he wants to. He is intelligent and ambitious; those qualities combined are important for improving in life. And, at 26, he is just entering the golden period for footballers. Thierry will definitely become even greater." Now there is a frightening thought.

Roll of honour

1991 Lothar Matthäus (Germany, Internazionale)
1992 Marco van Basten (Holland, Milan)
1993 Roberto Baggio (Italy, Juventus)
1994 Romario (Brazil, Barcelona)
1995 George Weah (Liberia, Milan)
1996 Ronaldo (Brazil, Barcelona)
1997 Ronaldo (Brazil, Inter)
1998 Zinedine Zidane (France, Juventus)
1999 Rivaldo (Brazil, Barcelona)
2000 Zinedine Zidane (France, Juventus)
2001 Figo (Portugal, Real Madrid)
2002 Ronaldo (Brazil, Real Madrid).