On the ball: Let down by a pitch hero
October 12, 2016 | 7:51 PM
by Gautam Viswanathan
Thierry Henry: Record breaker, history maker, World Cup winner.

From 11-a-side games on astroturf pitches to a quick beachside kickabout, everyone in Muscat is out playing football, as they mimic the moves of legends ranging from Diego Maradona and Pele to modern day superstars such as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.

Few, however, meet their idols in the flesh. I still remember the day I met Thierry Henry like it were yesterday, except that it wasn’t. It was the 7th of November, 2015.

Despite the myriad founts of money that have seemingly sprung forth today, the beautiful game still retains its working class soul: Manchester United, or Newton Heath, as they were known, were created by a group of railway workers from Lancashire. Down south, a group of artillerymen from Her Majesty’s Royal Arsenal got together to found the club that made Highbury their home for 93 years.

It is a thread that features in the childhoods of many of our modern day idols: Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s father pulled night shifts as a security guard in southern Sweden, his mum was a cleaner. Cristiano Ronaldo was born to a father who was a gardener and mother who earned a livelihood as a cook.

Thierry Henry was born to immigrant parents in the Parisian suburb of Les Ulis, an area notorious for gang violence, drug rings, and high numbers of juvenile offenders.

When I first saw him in the flesh, it was quite clear he’d left that life far, far behind. Flanked by four security guards – the sort who pick up extra cash by moonlighting as nightclub bouncers – Henry was at his sharpest in a navy blue suit as he strode in to meet the admirers who’d come to catch a glimpse of him.

I was there to snap a few photos of the man, but as a lifelong Arsenal fan, I could not help but be giddy with excitement. Thierry’s always epitomised cool and sassy, both on and off the pitch.

This is after all the man who spearheaded the Gunners’ Invincibles campaign, quite easily the standout feat any team has achieved in the Barclays Premier League to date.

This is also the man who is top scorer for Les Bleus: I still remember Titi’s brace against Lithuania, the ones that took him past Michel Platini. Small wonder then that I wanted to have a few words with the man: I was expecting an affable, gregarious gentleman. He’d be a shoe-in to play James Bond, if they ever decided 007 was to be French.

What I received instead, was the sort of froideur that the French are stereotypically known for all across the world. I received a vibe that reeked of him being brilliant, and therefore better than everyone around him.

I cannot shy away from what I believe was a revelation about the man. He was meeting the fans who’d assembled to see him not because he wanted to, but because he had to.

Henry signing autographs for the kids who’d lined up for about six hours to see him reminded me of a bored cashier running the midnight shift at an all-night supermarket, going through the motions of scribbling his name with a sort of bored, ‘been there, done that’ attitude.

I still tried to get in a word edgeways. “Thierry, it’s an absolute honour to meet you,” I told him. I was met with the most imperceptible of frigid nods. I then realised that my plan of engaging him in conversation wasn’t worth it.

But his entire demeanour during his meet-and-greet with the fans really did let me down. I didn’t even want his autograph in the end, because in many ways I wanted to remember Henry the player, not Henry the man.

Even today, I cannot help but wonder why it went down that way. Surely he knows, having played for Juventus, Arsenal and Barcelona, three of the biggest clubs in the world, how much the fans admire him.

Maybe somewhere down the line he forgot his roots, but I cannot allow myself to think that way: He is after all one of the reasons I love football today. Maybe he had something else on his mind.

In the end, I think it’s best to not inject any feeling into these thoughts. All things considered, I still got to meet Thierry Henry: Record breaker, history maker, World Cup winner. And the memory of meeting him is the only keepsake I need.

That and the photo I took with him: I am not, after all, devoid of sentiment.

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