BELGIUM’S assistant coach Thierry Henry plays with the ball during a training session in Dedovsk on Monday.—AFP
BELGIUM’S assistant coach Thierry Henry plays with the ball during a training session in Dedovsk on Monday.—AFP

ST PETERSBURG: Thierry Henry might be France’s all-time record goal-scorer but you could argue whether he was as talismanic for his national side as he was for Arsenal. For Les Bleus, Henry thrived when he played under leaders like Zinedine Zidane and Didier Deschamps. When he needed to step up, Henry couldn’t be the inspiration. Like at the 2010 World Cup, his last in France colours, when he could’ve stopped a players revolt but didn’t. The French campaign in South Africa ended in disgrace.

Henry’s relationship with France had soured in the lead-up to that World Cup. His infamous handball in the playoff against Ireland led to the goal that helped them qualify for the tournament. Henry accepted that he cheated, that the referee didn’t see it and it was that blatant use of unfair means that didn’t bode well with the French public. He was also perceived as arrogant and that didn’t make him a popular figure.

When Zidane retired after the 2006 World Cup, where he led France to the final, Henry was all set for his coronation as the king of the French football team. He inherited the captain’s armband but couldn’t inherit Zidane’s title.

After Henry-led France were eliminated in the group stage of the Euro 2008, the striker went to the World Cup two years later knowing he wasn’t assured of a starting place. He chose to remain silent when the team players rebelled against coach Raymond Domenech. Domenech was the man who’d told Henry in the lead-up to the World Cup that he would only go to South Africa if he accepted the role of a substitute.

It was a nightmarish end to an international career that had such a dream beginning. At 20, Henry was part of the French squad that won the World Cup on home soil in 1998. Playing without fear, he scored in the quarter-final shootout against Italy at a time when nerves kicked in for some senior players of the squad who refused to take a penalty. Two years later, the Euro 2000 title followed. Not much came after that. When he retired from football in 2014, there were calls for him to be given a farewell match by France – something that never transpired.

So when France take on Belgium in the World Cup semi-final on Tuesday, Henry may be forgiven for feeling little if he helps deliver the knockout blow to his native country. Two years ago, Henry was appointed by Belgium coach Roberto Martinez to help out his strikers, including Romelu Lukaku.

Belgium needed a figure in the dressing room who had been there and done it all. Henry fit the bill and Belgium’s golden generation is two victories away from delivering what they’ve promised for so long — an international title.

You could question what Henry would feel when the French national anthem La Marseillaise is played out here at the Krestovsky Stadium is played out. France’s second-highest capped player has stood, defending his country’s colours on 123 occasions. This time, though, he would be in the opposing dugout.

“I would be proud to show Titi that he chose the wrong camp,” French striker Olivier Giroud said at a news conference on Sunday, referring to Henry by his nickname. “It’s true that its strange to have him against us for this game. I think it will be a peculiar match for him. But as long as we win, it is fine with me.”

Against Belgium, Giroud and France would come against Lukaku, who has shown during this World Cup that he’s been learning rapidly from Henry. He showed that in his performance against Brazil in the semi-final, when he hugged the touchline to draw defenders with him opened spaces for others. He also cut inside at times and although he might not have the dribble and trickery that Henry had he was just as effective.

With Henry, Belgium may also get insight — if they haven’t got already — into Deschamps’ thinking. Henry’s former team-mate is now the French coach, looking to deliver a second World Cup title for the Les Bleus. Henry, though, will be doing everything to prevent that from happening. A Belgium win would maybe, just maybe, give him the closure he needs.

Published in Dawn, July 10th, 2018