Soccer fans love players who live for one-on-one, who seek out opportunities to utter destroy their opponent on the dribble and bring some of that street style to the world’s game. Thierry Henry was almost ahead of his time in doing just that. Born in the suburbs of Paris, the streets were Henry’s soccer classroom. And he was a straight A student.
At 7 years old, Henry was already being recruited to the local club in his neighborhood, CO Les Ulis. His father desperately wanted Henry to be in training with the club, despite Henry initially not having any interest. He bounced around with a couple clubs and ended up at ES Viry-Châtillon. It was there where he was discovered by a scout from AS Monaco at the age of 13, and they brought him into their academy without even asking for a trial. Under then-coach Arsène Wenger, Henry developed at Monaco and eventually made his pro debut in August 1994. Wenger played Henry on the left wing instead of center forward to utilize his talents—ball control, skill, and pace—against an opponent’s right back, who would be less likely to handle someone of Henry’s quality.
Henry started slow, but eventually became French Young Football of the Year in 1996 and then helped Monaco to the 1996-1997 Ligue 1 title. He also got his first cap with France’s national team, and by 1998 he had played himself onto the World Cup roster. France was hosting the 1998 World Cup and would emerge as the victors, lifting its first World Cup trophy. Henry was only getting started.
He moved to Juventus in January 1999, but wasn’t able to stick there and struggled in Serie A. After just one year, he left Juve to head to London, where he would reunite with Arsène Wenger at Arsenal. There, his career exploded. Known by his nickname of “Titi,” he played at forward and became a prolific scorer, arguably the best the Premier League had ever seen. He scored 226 goals in 8 seasons for the club and was a key piece in Arsenal’s 2003-2004 season. The team, dubbed the Invincibles, is the only Premier League team to date to go an entire season undefeated. In that season, Henry scored 39 goals in all competitions and had an incredible partnership with fellow French teammates Patrick Vieira and Robert Pires, and the team dominated the league from start to finish.
Henry won 6 trophies in his 8 seasons with Arsenal, and the only trophy that eluded him was the Champions League. He left in 2007 for Barcelona hoping to achieve that dream. He would be a part of a historic year for Barcelona. In 2008-2009, the team won La Liga, the Copa del Rey, and the UEFA Champions League, with Henry hoisting all 3 trophies for the first time. In 2009-2010, they repeated as La Liga champions, and they would also win the Spanish Supercup, the UEFA Super Cup, and the FIFA Club World Cup. 7 trophies in 2 years was an incredible run, and Titi was at the center of it all.
Meanwhile, he continued to thrive for Les Bleus. He was a regular starter for France in the 2002 and 2006 World Cups. In 2007, he became the all-time leader in goals for France, passing the great Michel Platini. However, World Cup qualifying for the 2010 World Cup found France in a playoff with Ireland to make it into the field of 32. In the 2nd leg, Thierry Henry found himself in a controversy when he deliberately cradled the ball in the box with his arm before sending it across to William Gallas for the game-winning goal, sending them to South Africa. It sparked outcry around the world, with some calling for a replay of the match and for Henry to be banned. Ultimately, nothing happened and France went to the World Cup, where they would crash out in the group stage after lots of inner turmoil. Henry announced his retirement from the team after that World Cup, finishing his international career as the all-time leader in goals and 2nd all-time in appearances.
After 2010, Henry went to MLS to join the New York Red Bulls, where he became an instant sensation. With the weight of the club on his shoulders, Henry delivered time and time again. He became a club legend as their captain and led the team to the 2013 Supporters’ Shield. After the 2014 season, Henry announced his retirement.
Henry was a striker who would move out to the left side of the field to help create scoring opportunities for his teammates. But, he also could run right at you one-on-one and beat you with a style that was clearly developed on those Paris streets where he grew up. In 3 seasons at Arsenal, Henry logged over 50 assists in addition to his prolific goalscoring. He wasn’t a guy who would beat you in the air, but he was versatile enough to see what a defense was giving him and exploit it. He could beat you from the penalty spot, on a set piece, or he could dazzle you with a back heel that would leave you scratching your head in disbelief.
Henry could fool a defense with a no look pass off his plant foot or he could weave through it with expert dribbling and speed. He could do just about everything, but no matter what he did, it normally ended with the ball in the net and him running to the corner to celebrate.
His list of achievements need its own museum. While he never won the Ballon d’Or or FIFA World Player of the Year, he was named to the FIFA 100, won 4 EPL Golden Boots, was on the EPL Team of the Year 6 years in a row, won a FIFA Confederations Cup Golden Ball, and was a 3-time MLS Best XI. His career ended with 360 goals and 161 assists for his club career and 51 goals and 30 assists for Les Bleus.
Thierry Henry is one of the best scorers of all time, and he balanced that scoring prowess with a knack for setting up others to score as well. Soccer players around the world would do right by studying the career of Thierry Henry as an example of how to score in numbers while also being an expert setup player. As the current coach of the Montreal Impact, Henry will get to pass on those lessons in MLS. The league is lucky to have one of the greatest students of the game become the teacher.
For more Black History Month stories, check out our Black History Month hub. We will be bringing a story each day this month to highlight some of the biggest moments in black American and world soccer history.