Speed is temporary, class is permanent

Thierry Henry was a star the size of a supernova in 2006 with Arsenal Football Club. Even with his signing a long contract extension, staying to carry the torch of Arsenal football to Ashburton Grove in Islington from the old historic ground in the Highbury neighborhood, 2006-07 would be his last season in North London. Then on Monday evening, Henry returned to his old club as a late substitute in Arsenal’s first FA Cup match of 2012 against Leeds United. The entrance was heartwarming. The exit was epic.

Henry’s career had been made at Monaco in the French Ligue Un in the 1990s by Arsene Wenger who signed the young prodigy at age 17. It was Wenger who later saved Henry’s career by bringing him to Arsenal after Thierry had been marginalized at the giant Italian club Juventus where he landed following his leave of Monaco for greener pastures. Wenger was revolutionizing English football in North London. Henry was the piece needed to make that revolution historic. Along with a certain level of arrogant confidence, he had the perfect package of speed, skill, strength, stamina, and smarts to do anything he wanted. He became the star of the old club in London, giving it an air of sublime elegance with his supreme performances. Arsenal won two league titles and three FA Cups while Henry was setting the club’s record for goals scored, totaling more than 200, and leading the Premier League in scoring four times. He had also given the league a style that still endures.

Thierry Henry’s last season with Arsenal was memorable for many things, including his sometimes petulant behavior, as he found himself surrounded by Wenger’s youth project. He also had a long list of ailments that season – sciatica, hamstring, foot, stomach, and groin. Frustration boiled. The siren song heard that summer from Catalunia was too much: the once-great Thierry Henry headed south to play for Barcelona. Barca had great success while Henry was on the squad; but Thierry was getting older by the month, starting just 15 matches his third and final season. There was still time for one last bit of greatness: Henry would lead his French nation in the 2010 World Cup. He was old enough to know better than to let what happened happen – a disgrace that will reverberate for a generation. What better time to escape to New York City?

Henry signed for the New York Red Bulls of Major League Soccer in July 2010 and helped his new American team to the league’s Eastern Conference title, but the 2011 season wasn’t as kind. He went back to London to train with his old team after this recent MLS season. One thing led to another, eventually to a place on the Arsenal squad as part of a two-month loan.

On Monday evening, Arsenal did their typical huffing-and-puffing routine — moving the ball with aplomb between the boxes without the finishing power, a scenario now long-winded to the distaste of the majority of Arsenal supporters. Then in the 68th minute, Henry appeared on the sideline as part of a double-substitution. Instead of wearing his historic Number 14, he showcased a ’12’ on his back — teammate Theo Walcott now wears his old number.

During the Christmas holidays, Arsenal Football Club unveiled a statue of Thierry Henry outside their magnificent stadium in the old North London neighborhood. Now, it was the flesh and blood of Henry that strode onto the pitch to the deafening sound from the Arsenal faithful. The game was locked in a scoreless scoreline. Henry was wiping away a tear. With only 10 minutes left, Alex Song in the middle put a through pass to Henry who had come into the penalty area from the left corner. The master received the ball with a perfect touch of his right shoe. Making the goaltender think he would charge with the ball toward the near post, Henry opened his hips instead and delivered a perfectly paced bounding ball just inside the far post. Arsenal 1 Leeds United 0 was the final.

Henry ran to sidelines with arms outstretched, like so many times before. Except this time, he started screaming at the top of his lungs for what seemed to be minutes. It was the relief of the tension of the event — his much-anticipated return to the club where he became one of the top five soccer players in the world during his prime. Back then he was swift, with the pace of a gazelle. Now that speed has waned quite a bit. But this game, this goal, and this man showed just how speed is temporary, and how class is permanent.

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