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The Designated Player: Thierry Henry’s Internal Monologue

Thierry HenryForget Opta chalkboards, Adidas MiCoach sensors, and electronic goal line monitoring — as technological innovations coming to U.S. soccer go, this is the big one. At a secret Manhattan launch event last Tuesday night, held for a select group of journalists (one), a series of mind-blowing demos took place. And while the ability to animate Clint Dempsey’s face via Kinect proved a fun diversion, there was no doubt what the main attraction was — the live feed of Thierry Henry’s inner monologue.

I was thrilled to see this. Not for reasons of prurience — and given that the five official minutes of the demo were devoted to a carefully selected period when the New York superstar was staring at his fish tank plans, there wasn’t much danger of him straying into dangerous territory anyway. But Henry is such a fantastic jumble of cultural reference points — as a fierce competitor, he not only plays hard on the field, but cannot bear the thought that someone, somewhere, might be better at living in the city he currently occupies. To access his thoughts is to not only see a philosopher genius of the sport, but a gazetteer of the cultural life of the city. With this public service in mind, I only felt half bad about stealing the password (“arseneknows247”) and using it during Henry’s diva-like performance against Columbus last Saturday — when not only was he in irresistible form, he was full of insights into his team and adopted home.

Warning: The feed is slightly erratic, and occasionally Henry actually lowers his thoughts beyond audible level to mess with his own mind, or lapses into Cockney/French rhyming slang — in those cases I’ve made the best possible guess at what he’s saying, but inaccuracies may have crept in. Also, certain sections, such as a long crossed-wire internal discourse on Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element, which Henry attributes to Afrika Bambaataa, have been erased for reasons of accuracy/relevance. For what it’s worth, Henry was wandering back from offside at the time he was pondering this.

With those caveats — and the fact that this technology is in very early beta stage — in mind, I give you the Henry files, Part 1 …

The teams emerge from the tunnel. Henry pretends not to care, but is sure to arrive at the field slightly before everyone else. His thoughts gradually settle on the game:

Montage, montage, montage, silly rock music … zeeeeeeeee … c’mon, to me, now … and we’re walking, out of the tunnel, and again, the turf. The child in front of me is too slow. But I can’t carry him. What am I supposed to do? It’s like I’ve been saying, if it’s grass, cut it. I point him to the children in front of the visitors: “These are good mascots — we must respect them.” The child cries harder, but that is the standard we must reach. I look over to Rafa, the one who understands, but he is picking the pocket of the assistant referee. I catch his eye … ooooooooeeeeee …

(It is never quite clear whether certain noises originate with Henry or can be put down to electronic interference — I have included them when unsure.)

In the second minute, a lobbed pass finds Henry. He stays on balance, taking a rather tame shot on target, though it is saved easily by Andy Gruenebaum in the Columbus goal. A moment later Columbus take the lead as Arrieta goes past Connor Lade at right back and sends a cutback across goal for Mirosevic to convert.

Ah, my old friend, drop for me, drop for me … Yellow inches into my peripheral vision as Marshall turns slowly after me. “Chad” — I have now met a Chad. This is America. I remember the reverie well — December, 2000, as the fifth goal against Newcastle went in. My mind was still in Florida with chads — dimpled, hanging … would I ever immerse myself in this place? Yellow awakens me again. Marshall turns upfield. Gruenebaum is down holding the ball. Merde. It has happened again. How did a goal not occur? I must regard the turf in doubt.

Now the yellow shirts drift away from me as I stroll back upfield. They are a team I admire and respect. Barbasol has been around for 90 years — tradition and passion. I may be with Gillette, but you can still look at other smooth shaves to appreciate. Keep up with the world game. Now look, they have scored — see! We have made things hard on ourselves. I say ourselves not myself — there is no “Je” in team, though there is an “I” in equippe … I watch the one who looks like “Stone Cold” Steve Austin pick the ball out of the net. Yes, I know this! I had Mickey Rourke (Mickey Rourke!) walk me along the boardwalk of Asbury Park to explain the wrestling and sometimes now I have Lindpere dive from the crossbar onto Holgersson in training, like an Estonian Triple Etch. It builds the team. As for the goal, I feel nothing. McCarty scurries back to get the ball on the spot quickly — I am impressed? No. He enters my zone and he whispers to me that that is Mirosevic’s third goal of the season and Arrieta’s third assist. I nod curtly to show him I know this, glance at Higuain on the Crew bench, and send the redheaded one to research all such siblings in American soccer.

Henry is playing off the shoulder of the last defender a lot in this game, rather than dropping deep as he sometimes does. In the ninth minute Rafa Marquez sends a long ball over the top that Henry traps first time and pokes home past Gruenebaum to level the scores.

Find the game. Find the game. Yes, but it’s like I’ve been telling you all year, I have the game, but where do you keep it? You look at how the Heat won last year — did LeBron stay in the air? No. You must pound on the court and touch the wood. That’s why I drop deep — to touch, to feel my roots. Today, though, the one they call Gaven is running around in that area, wild-eyed and possibly mildly rabid — he reminds me of the covers of the Woodstock-era bootlegs of The Band that David Seaman used to play me forever at Arsenal. His beard is an affront to his sponsor. Mine, too, perhaps, but I have a frame for my thoughts. I leave him to mercies of the Australian, who is bounding round the middle at random, strewth-ing into things. Ah. NOW! NOW! Rafa is pausing by the halfway line with the ball — I know this look. I first saw it in our Barça days, when Puyol sullied his fragrance launch in Sitges. A mix of recognition and contempt. I cannot get involved, but NOW! NOW! I leave Marshall to his dreams of milk, and the pass arrives. Boff! Goal. Yet I am off-balance to celebrate. Ach! Sensing my despair, the others leave me be, but for McCarty, who scampers up to me weeping in relief. Hush, little one …

New York continue to press in the first half, though the next good chance is a free header for the Crew’s Marshall, just a few minutes after the goal, as New York defend a free kick using a wall consisting of the diminutive Connor Lade.

Marshall’s header goes over — he is strangely magnificent, though, like an ox before felling. I feel the awe I always feel in the presence of authenticity — one I feel alone. My first day in New York I had the Ream boy over to Soho to wire my apartment from the lamppost, in tribute to Kool Herc. Ream was … stoic, to be fair. I still see his face talking to the cop. So solemn. Ha. New York City cops. Cagney. Lacey. Wheeeee … Look at Connor leap to be the wall. I am proud of him. You can see Mirosevic wonder if he is far away or small. The Columbus player jogs back up the field confused by this depth-of-field question and the Australian runs into him hard — “Love tap, mate,” he grins. In London he would have served me my Carling.

Shortly afterward, an Henry run creates a half-chance for his strike partner Kenny Cooper.

Now Cooper is running. This should be magnificent, but isn’t. I step back and he barrels sightlessly past … to where? What goes on with him? So large, so gentle, so strange. If the game is a newspaper, he folds it into a hat. The ball arcs over from deep again and I run. The angle is acute but I cut across the goal and Cooper’s unsubtle shot is cleared from the line. My angle to reach him for the pass was narrower than my angle to goal, but I chose to share, to educate, to grow the game here. Another slow trudge upfield. I remember to wince.

The game is 1-1 at halftime.

I let the Swede speak. “In a way … In a way … ” — it is like I have been telling him all year, if there is a way, we would find it. McCarty is in the corner setting my TiVo for Boardwalk Empire, then switching to Twitter when he thinks I’m not looking. Pearce is preening discreetly — I remember his first night in New York. I took him to the site where the Mercer Hotel had stood, grabbed him by both shoulders and told him the Dolls played there. I introduced him to Fab Five Freddie and we lamented the decline of the East Village. Pearce wanted to know “where the laydeez were at.” We left him near an NYU dorm. Arriviste. Now Conde has him in a headlock and is demanding money. I pretend not to see from under my towel. The game is there to be won, but we must respect Columbus — not literally, of course, but there is much to be learned from teams of their genre. The Australian is talking about “the MLS” in the corner. I look up to fix him with a steely glare — “THERE IS NO DEFINITE ARTICLE.” “No worries, mate,” he chirps, before returning to talk of “running through walls for this team.” Later I will stand in the middle of the field, place my hands on my hips, and look to the heavens — I will be thinking of this moment. I am trying to grow the game here.

The game remains deadlocked until 10 minutes from the end, when an Henry shot is tipped over by an amazing save by Gruenebaum.

Le Toux has arrived on the field — strange to think of us sharing a heritage — perhaps we saw the same VHS of Angel Heart once, but his passing is alien to me. Here comes one now. Too sharp, too accurate. I translate it pointedly, from right foot to left, and breathe, envision, and place … NON! Gruenebaum’s touch is good — onto the bar and away. NON! I summon despair, dismiss it again, and jog to the corner flag. I need to be alone …

… I send the corner in with disconsolate accuracy after my miss. Sure — accuracy, but if there are no results, what are we doing here? McCarty has been agitating to be allowed in the box at corners and I wordlessly watch the ball fly off his head and in. So. He races away with a joy I find touching. He is not thinking of the 2015 season when I am gone. Am I the only one seeing the bigger picture? When I summoned Gandolfini and made him tell what happened when The Sopranos faded to black, did I accept his first answer? No. A long night, but we got there. So it is here. The bench cavorts at this instance. I ask what it means. Gruenebaum is hurt and I walk over to tell him that “Columbus Crew Stadium is a soccer-specific stadium in Columbus, Ohio, and the home stadium of Major League Soccer club Columbus Crew. Built in 1999, Crew Stadium was the first soccer-specific stadium built for a professional soccer team in the second pro era of American soccer. The stadium currently seats 20,145.” He seems to appreciate it.

With the Gruenebaum injury delay adding nine minutes of stoppage time, the game is still tense going into time added on. In the 93rd minute New York win a corner and Henry, seeing the substitute keeper has come too far forward and off his line, boldly banks a direct shot off the back post and in for a beautifully taken Olímpico goal.

Sadly for scholars looking to verify Henry’s intentions to score direct from the corner, at this point the feed becomes very scrambled and distorted, though it is possible to make out heated references to Wayne Woodrow “Woody” Hayes, Rascal Flatts, and sundry other onetime Columbus residents who’ve made it as far as Wikipedia, along with the phrases “I see you Jack Nicklaus” and “Wendy’s restaurants, can you hear me, Wendy’s restaurants? Your boys took one hell of a beating!” All the while Henry is pointing at his eyes — possibly indicating some overheating of the monitoring technology behind them.

In the moments after the goal, as the game drifts to a close, Henry can be seen with his back to the field on the right wing. He appears to have calmed down, but he also appears to be conspicuously ignoring the play behind him. A last fragment comes through:

What can you do? I have been saying this the whole time. Yes, I meant it, but that is the paradox — not much means much. It’s a goal but it’s also a story. I said so to Junot Diaz …I did not “say” it, but c’mon, this is New York. When you know, you know. Are we still here? Kurtis Blow the whistle already … It’s a joke, but at the same time we’re a point behind the Fire and two behind Sporting. Still, there’s pleasure in the win until I glance at the Columbus bench. Coach Warzycha has paired tan slacks with a black-and-yellow polo shirt — this confuses the hell out of me, and angers me as something I cannot know the origin of. Truly this country is vast and incomprehensible, but I have a thirst to learn. Together we will grow.

At this point, I swear I see Henry look right at me in the press box and tilt his chin in my direction. I hear a single solitary “fin,” and the feed cuts out for good. He winks and jogs up the tunnel to whisper his postgame interviews. I may have been played.

Graham Parker leads the U.S. and MLS soccer coverage for the Guardian. He also writes for The Howler.