Prior to the age of 15, football meant very little to me. Once, Tonton Christian got me the full 1998 France kit, the red socks, white shorts and blue shirt emblazoned with the golden cockerel didn’t churn any feelings of pride or patriotism in my young mind. There was one player though, who’d play a key role in my growing interest of the game, Thierry Henry.
My mother couldn’t stop talking about him as he shared our Guadeloupean roots. Though it was important to note that he was born in Paris (like my mother coincidentally). In 2006 something changed. Was it the charm of the World Cup in Germany? The full game coverage offered by DStv or the sight of a familiar face in the French team? Whatever it was, I was up for the cup!
I exclusively watched Les Bleus’ matches and was happy to see Titi (as Henry is affectionately known) in action. A scoreless draw with Switzerland was disappointing, but the 1-1 stalemate with South Korea was worrying. The only positive was Titi scoring his first goal of the tournament. The game against Togo was a must win if we wanted to advance to the knockout rounds. A lot of African teams who have colonial ties with France always prove to be tricky opposition. But Henry and co were in no mood to pack their bags as they won 2-0, Titi on the score-sheet.
The Spaniards were overpowered 3-1 in the round of 16. Henry probably enjoyed it the most as La Roja’s coach Luis Aragones once called him a “black shit.” Our reward was a quarterfinal clash with the reigning champions Brazil. In Zimbabwe, Brazil is everyone’s second national team, if not first. So it wasn’t a surprise to find that I would be the only Les Bleus supporter at my gogo and sekuru’s place. What raised my eyebrow was Simba supporting the South Americans. Clearly treason took a backseat to jogo bonito.
My sibling’s folly proved to be just that, as Henry steered a side footed volley into the net for the only goal. Simba came back to his senses and pledged allegiance to a France team that went all the way to the final. Many people regarded Zinedine Zidane as the talisman of the team, not I. Yeah the guy came out of retirement and was playing out of his skin – but as the gold boots hinted, all the hype was getting to his head. Ask Marco Materazzi.
Henry on the other hand was a bit under appreciated. The combination of flawless technique and refined power didn’t seem to wow the Gaulic public as much as the English when he wore the colours of Arsenal. Perhaps it was his perceived aloofness? In the World Cup final I did come across one of the possible reasons: The big game player doesn’t show up for finals. the Confederations Cup aside he rarely scored or produced a virtuoso moment to affect the result.
Against Italy, he was well policed by Fabio Cannavaro and was revived by the medical team’s smelling salts when the Azurri skipper caught him with an “accidental” elbow. Many people blamed Zidane for the loss to the Italians. Gold boots saw red after responding to Materazzi’s insults with a forehead to the chest. But if Henry had contributed anything close to the South Korea, Togo and Brazil games, we instead of Italy would have been world champs.
After Germany, the general consensus was that most of the elder statesmen in the team were closer to the end than the beginning. With Euro 2008 in two years, a mixture of old and new were used in the qualifiers. The likes of Samir Nasri, Hatem Ben Arfa and Karim Benzema complemented Titi’s experience. Les Bleus qualified without much fuss from their group. Henry’s highlights were scoring in a 3-1 revenge win over Italy and becoming the countries all time goalscorer, by surpassing Michel Platini’s haul of 41 with a brace against Lithuania.
My memories of Euro 2008 are not happy. One of our dogs T-Rex died of poisoning and on the field, Titi’s men might well have been poisoned as they finished bottom of their group. The first game against Romania has to be the dullest match I ever watched. The 0-0 a fair result. If the first match was uninspiring , the second match would be the opposite … but for our opponents the Netherlands.
The Dutch were leading 2-0 and thoroughly outplaying us when, Henry gave us Les Bleus a lifeline, flicking Willy Sagnol’s cross past Edwin van der Sar. Arjen Robben’s goal seconds later, cut the line and Wesley Sneijder’s late strike was an unnecessary nail in a coffin that was well shut. Funny enough, France could still advance to the next round if we beat Italy and the Dutch did the same against the Romanians.
Ah Italy. Our rivals also needed a win after an equally dire showing that yielded a solitary point. Unfortunately, the Azurri would play the role of undertaker to our Euro hopes. Andrea Pirlo converted a penalty when Eric Abidal fouled Luca Toni in the position of last man and was sent off. Titi had given us hope with a flick of the boot against the Netherlands, how ironic that it was his boot that flicked Pirlo’s free kick past Gregory Coupet to put the result beyond doubt.
Following Les Bleus from an Anglophone country is a noise free experience. The reason I say this is because of the French press. Ever Since Raymond Domenech took charge of the team. The national papers and magazines have analyzed, colonoscopied, patted down, dissected, spaded and castrated Les Bleus. It must be said that Domenech is easy to dislike. His my way or the highway approach to management and inability to play in an imaginative/daring way (the hallmark of the 1998 squad) were to be his undoing.
There were people along the way who gave him a hand in his journey to the abyss. Titi’s hand was one of the most extended. His was to become one of the most hated in Ireland, second in notoriety to Diego Maradona’s “Hand of God.” Enter the “Hand of Gaul.”
To be continued …