Henry set to join the Red Bulls
French star Thierry Henry is poised to join MLS' Red Bulls after the World Cup
Henry has long spoken of his desire to live in New York and fondness for America
Barcelona officials have questioned his commitment to the club this past season
Just over an hour into Barcelona's Champions League semifinal elimination to Internazionale, Thierry Henry knew his time at the club was up. Barcelona, the holders, needed two goals to reach the final but instead of using Henry's experience from the bench, coach Pep Guardiola replaced Zlatan Ibrahimovic with Jeffren Suarez, a 22-year-old rookie with just two first-team goals to his name. The snub could not have been more public, and it marked the low point of a terrible year for Henry.
It could also have left the sporting and marketing departments at Red Bull New York, the club Henry looks certain to join after the World Cup, wondering if they have made a rather large mistake in their efforts to recruit him.
Catalan newspaper Sport reported Friday that Henry had signed a pre-contract agreement with the club, with the only surprise being that the news had taken so long to leak out. Sources in Barcelona told SI.com that Henry's manager Darren Dein, a lawyer and the son of ex-Arsenal vice-chairman David Dein, had tied up a deal in principle with the Red Bulls as long as three weeks ago.
Unsurprisingly, considering its season only finished on Sunday night, Barcelona has not yet agreed to any sale. It would demand some compensation given that Henry's contract has one more year to run, and both parties would need to make sure contingencies are in place were Henry to suffer an injury at the World Cup. So it's not a done deal just yet.
As a marquee signing, Henry ticks all the right boxes: The current France captain, he is a former World Cup and European Championship winner, and the top scorer (with 51 goals) in the French national team's history. His goals also helped Arsenal win two Premier League titles and three FA Cups, and he regularly tops fans' poll as their all-time favorite player. With Juan Pablo Angel filling the only one of three Designated Player spots afforded to each MLS team, there is room on the Red Bulls' roster for Henry.
However, it has been a swift fall from grace for Henry, who had 26 goals and 12 assists in Barcelona's all-conquering campaign in 2008-09 -- the team won the league, the Spanish Cup and the Champions League, and added to that the Spanish Super Cup, the European Super Cup and the Club World Cup to become the first side holding all six titles in one year. Henry had finally overcome the jinx of talented French players who have struggled at Barcelona in the past, a list that includes Laurent Blanc, Emmanuel Petit, Philippe Christanval and Christophe Dugarry. But this season Thierry has scored only four goals and set up three.
Last week, Barcelona president Joan Laporta told Spanish reporters that Henry "can leave in the summer if he wants." The news received no more than a passing mention, and it is now an open secret in Barcelona that the Red Bulls will be his next port of call. "I think it will be," he told the New York Post last summer when asked about the possibility of joining the Red Bulls. "It's always been a dream for me to live in the U.S.," he told the Chicago Sun-Times while on tour with Barcelona in summer 2008. "Everyone knows I love New York. I have friends here and ... there's something I can't describe about New York that I like."
But will the MLS be welcoming a busted flush, or is there more to come from the 32-year-old? The answer, as with most issues surrounding Henry, is not simple.
One theory is that after winning every title going last season, particularly his "Holy Grail," the Champions League, Henry simply took his foot off the gas; another is that his attention was focused on France's difficult World Cup qualifying campaign (though a similar problem didn't seem to affect the form of teammate Lionel Messi too much); and another that he was worried about the next, and probably final, move of his career.
Preseason back and Achilles injuries contributed to his sluggish start to the campaign. The emergence of the prolific Pedro Rodriguez, who scored in the Spanish Super Cup win over Athletic Bilbao and hit the winner in the European Super Cup win over Shakhtar Donetsk, further reduced his chances.
Even though the club fully supported Henry during the media storm following his controversial role in the "handball" goal that qualified France for the World Cup, Guardiola did not seem impressed by the player in training. "Thierry knows he can give more and I expect more from him," was a familiar refrain from the coach at Barcelona's pregame press conferences.
The die was cast after Barcelona was drawn against Henry's former club Arsenal in the Champions League quarterfinals. "The bond I have with the Arsenal fans I will never get anywhere else," Henry told Sky Sports News in an interview that aired after the draw. "I'm not saying I won't try to fight ... because that's the way the game is. But I don't want to play against Arsenal."
Barcelona were 2-0 ahead in the first leg at the Emirates, but ended up drawing 2-2, with captain Carles Puyol sent off in the second leg. Instead of commiserating with his teammates, Henry, who had played the last 14 minutes, stayed out on the pitch and milked an emotional farewell from his old club's fans. It was a bad error of judgment on his part. Henry has started only one game since then and was ignored for the rest of Barcelona's European campaign. Guardiola even selected defenders in positions Henry could have filled: Dani Alves at right wing against Real Madrid and Maxwell at left wing against Espanyol.
Although Henry has cut an unhappy figure in Spain this season, there could yet be a twist in this tale. Henry gave a hint of it in a recent interview with French magazine Surface: "The most important thing [about the World Cup] is to arrive fresh and without injuries so everyone can prepare well," he said. "From my experience, that's the base of any success."
He may have been referring to the example of Zinedine Zidane, whose final season for Real Madrid before the 2006 World Cup was a poor one. He was then written off in Germany, especially by the Spanish press who expected Spain's Round of 16 match against France to be Zidane's final match. Instead, Zidane scored and was Man of the Match in a 3-1 win. He went on to guide France to the final, and later made it be known that he had timed his season carefully to peak during the tournament.
"Great players in all World Cups are often those who have been able to rest during the season. Just look at Zidane four years ago," UEFA president and former France international Michel Platini told Journal du Dimanche. "I think certain players save themselves and I hope that's why we haven't seen much of them this season."
Henry will be praying that he falls into that category once the World Cup gets underway -- but not half as much as the management team at the Red Bulls.