Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Follow the Yellow brick Road

Thierry Henry's arrival in MLS marks the “Out of the Closet” moment of perhaps the worst-kept football secret of the last three years. Anyone who's observed the game over that time can't have failed to notice his open statements that playing football in the US was intriguing while MLS has been keen to lay its hands on anyone resembling a big star in order to grow their brand.

Let's not beat around the bush, it's a terrific coup for US soccer. Henry now beats the well-worn trail as David Beckham and Arsenal teammate Freddie Ljungberg did before him. Both have had some measure of success: Beckham's Galaxy has been consistent playoff teams, where Ljungberg's Seattle Sounders came close to topping the Western Conference in their debut season last year. But are these gentlemen stars of World Football really here for the soccer?

The simple answer is of course not. How could they be? Henry has made the move down (as did Beckham) from La Liga Champion to a mid-level MLS team and Ljungberg came from the EPL; the very peak of Association football to bang-on middle of the road. Make no mistake, these decisions are all about lifestyle and a pay cheque so large that team owners thank their lucky stars that MLS pays half. The move of an ageing superstar to the US soccer scene is driven primarily about money, lifestyle and future job opportunities: Ljungberg is a model, Henry has done some commentary and charity work and as for Beckham ... good grief.

MLS contributes 50% of these marquee salaries because it needs the boost. As the “fifth” league, it competes with LaCrosse, Indycar, NASCAR, tennis and even shuffleboard or curling for attention. Getting a bonafide superstar at an age where he's still of international class is a major win for the MLS, even at an overinflated price tag. And Henry is not shackled with being the first to walk this road. He's not the Football missionary sent to convert the heathen horde to the Beautiful Game; that path has been trod to varying degrees by Pele, Romario, Georgie Best and Paul Gascoigne. It's also telling that the most success at this has been achieved by “Brand Beckham”. Because he's joining a revolution and not starting one (MLS's words, not mine), Henry can now focus on doing what he does best: scoring goals. His languorous pace is not gone. His clinical eye for goal is still sharp – only twelve months ago he scored 26 goals in all competitions as his side won the Champions League on Barcelona's way to an unprecedented sextuplet of major trophies. He could easily have joined a midtable top-flight club, been an effective line-leader and maintained his European profile.

Henry's landing spot, the New York Red Bulls, have been the perpetual underachievers of the MLS, yet to make it to the championship series after being a foundation team created at soccer's US rebirth fifteen years ago. The Red Bulls optimistically rate tenth in the tri-state area in terms of team identity and popularity, behind every single NFL, NBA, baseball and NHL franchise. Even the New Jersey-based Nets or the Devils rank higher in the average New Yorker's consciousness than any soccer team.

But here's the catch. Thierry Henry has lived under a microscope since he was seventeen. Before his American Jaunt, he played for Monaco, Juventus, Arsenal and Barcelona: four of the biggest and toughest – and most visible - heavyweights of European football. His life has been subject to English and Spanish voyeurism since boyhood. And he spent the vast majority of his career in London – a city where the Quest for Celebrity has grown to a level that's more painful to watch than a kick in the groin. Then he followed London with Barcelona, a city so egocentric about their football (and footballers) that the only privacy he got in his three years was probably when he entered the smallest room. Is it any wonder he chose New York, a city where maybe 1 in 10 people has any idea about their faltering football team, and he can be an ordinary Joe and walk down the street unmolested by autograph hunters? If his ego needs a boost, New York has nearly 25 million people crammed into its Metropolitan area so if, as rumoured Henry likes to be the big fish in a small pond, there will still be those crucial pockets of adoration enough to soothe his ruffled ego.

It's different with Beckham. For better or for worse, Team Beckham has actively promoted a lifestyle and (shudder) brand (imagine kids born into “Brand Beckham”) that completely removes all trace of a normal life and replaced with living out a perverse iteration of the Oscar Wilde-ism: “The only thing worse than being being talked about is not being talked about”. They have made their bed and – failing Posh joining a cult and let's not rule that out, if only in hope – we're the ones cursed to lie in the bed Brand Beckham created for as long as we all shall live.

You get the feeling though that celebrity didn't sit that well with Henry. Sure, he liked the attention and adoration – who doesn't? But the public furore and inarticulate screaming that came first with his divorce (from English model Nicole Merry) and the “Hand of Frog” obviously rankled, especially for such an eloquent man who had tried to act always in a sporting manner. Now, whether this sportsmanship was an act or not is not the question, nor really does it matter. But the more the thought strikes me, the more it resonates: Henry had tired of having his entire life questioned publicly and perhaps though it time for an image reboot. Popular opinion of Beckham before his LA Galaxy move was of a washed-up player whose legs had gone; a guy more interested in pleasing his celebrity wife and her plastic Hollywood friends than in playing a perfect cross in to an open teammate. But his US exile has rehabilitated Beckham's image to such an extent that he's now congratulated and not derided for his innate marketability; he's now a guy who happens still to be very, very good at some aspects of the game. Focus has shifted from what he couldn't do back onto what he could. British culture now celebrates rather than attacks Brand Beckham, and Henry, a very smart and articulate man, has seen and observed.

To use an old adage: If you want to hide a tree, where better than in a forest? That's what Henry has seen and enacted. He became public enemy no. 1 last year for his blatant handball against the Irish in their World Cup qualifying playoff – and the public conveniently forgot that Ireland was not guaranteed a win, only a chance to go to extra time. After the match, he was ridiculed for what was seen as faux-sportsmanship. But, if you ask any average New Yorker about Thierry Henry's most famous moment, most would just reply with “Who?”.

So welcome to MLS, Thierry Henry. In footballing terms, Beckham has proved you don't lose top-drawer talent as a result of geography; he's also established that slowing down doesn't really matter, class is always evident. Henry has class both on- and off-field in spades. New York is a fantastic city, and if he wants a post-football career in the media he now has both location and personal advantages already in placed.

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