CAPE TOWN – Spare a thought for Monsieur Thierry Henry: as Belgium’s assistant-coach, the former France and Arsenal forward finds himself in a rather invidious position. In 1998, Henry was an influential member of France’s World Cup-winning squad; Didier Deschamps was his captain.
Now, 20 years later, France and Belgium meet in tonight’s World Cup semi-final (8pm) and Henry is in the opposing camp, having to plot the downfall of his own country, who are coached by his former skipper. Football, with its quirky penchant for cruel irony, loves to dish up such peculiar situations.
And, what’s more, this strange set of circumstances is just as much a hotly-debated topic in the Reiners household. There are two pillars upon which this football family is built: Kenny Dalglish and Thierry Henry.
In 1977, Dalglish signed for Liverpool and that was it: I’ve been a long-suffering devotee of the Anfield club ever since. When my son was seven and he first saw Henry in action, that was it: he has been a long-suffering devotee to Arsenal ever since. I also remember, back then, because of our love for cooking programmes, we used to regularly watch chef Ainsley Harriott on TV; he was just as mad about the Frenchman, and would season his food while chanting “Thierry Henry, Thierry Henry”.
For both my son and I that memory still lingers: for us, the Henry aura and magic are as fresh and inspirational as ever. If the emotional difficulty of Henry’s position can be felt in my little corner of Somerset West, imagine how deep and painful it has to be for the French legend.
What about France’s squad?
Antoine Griezmann was seven years old when he first met Henry, shortly after the 1998 triumph, when he asked his hero for an autograph. Now, that hero is on the opposition bench. Football, though, is about professionalism; it’s about doing the job you are paid for, to the best of your ability. Whatever happens tonight, whatever the result, rest assured, Henry will have done his job, and it’s what every player on the field will be doing.
There is no place for sentiment in football. Sentiment, nostalgia and memory are for us - the fans - to spice up the anticipation.
If anything, there is no doubt Henry’s presence behind the scenes for Belgium has been a master-stroke. His experience, his knowledge and his charisma have shaped, influenced and inspired Belgium. Hailed as the country’s “golden generation”, this Belgian team has, in the past, been unable to cope with the pressure of expectation - but Henry, because of his star status (much like Benni McCarthy has done at Cape Town City), has managed to instil in the players the much-needed mental strength and game-winning attitude.
So, as we settle in to watch what should be an epic encounter, Henry’s presence looms large. Players, on both teams, are still in awe of what he achieved - and, now, the French great is intent on passing on his vast cache of football information to those under his care.
And, at Russia 2018, we’ve seen the effect he has had on players like Romelu Lukaku, Kevin de Bruyne and Eden Hazard. (for example: Lukaku’s improved movement on and off the ball).
For France, Henry will be just as much a motivating factor: Griezman, Kylian Mbappe, Paul Pogba and Olivier Giroud are desperate to prove their hero - the man they all fondly refer to by the nickname “Titi” - has chosen the wrong team.
Mark Twain wrote: “The past may not repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”
Most definitely so: because the memory of Henry’s storied past continues to permeate the present.