The most accomplished import in MLS history, suave Red Bulls striker Thierry Henry has the Big Apple buzzing about its club for the first time since the heyday of Pelé's Cosmos
Gods don't answer letters, John Updike wrote. But they do occasionally take public transportation. From the moment he joined the New York Red Bulls in July, Thierry Henry—World Cup winner, global pitchman, finest forward in English Premier League history—has journeyed from his home in Manhattan to his games in Harrison, N.J., with straphanger fans on the humble PATH train. "I couldn't have done it in London or Barcelona or Paris—it would have been chaos," says Henry, sipping his café au lait unbothered in a SoHo bo√Æte. "You don't understand: I ... love ... it. It's just about being able to live."
The Frenchman isn't the first soccer megastar to embrace the relative peace and quiet of America after experiencing Europe's f√∫tbol fishbowl. But it's hard to imagine any other player—not even Pelé in the 1970s—falling as hard for New York City as Henry has. Since his midsummer arrival on a 4½-year, $20.3 million contract, Henry has hung out in Central Park, dined at Meatpacking District restaurants and attended Yankees games, a U.S.-France basketball exhibition (with his NBA friends Tony Parker and Ronny Turiaf), the U.S. Open (where he saw his pal Roger Federer) and Broadway shows (Chicago, West Side Story and Lend Me a Tenor).
Last month Henry consummated his Gothamania by purchasing a sprawling SoHo apartment for a reported $14.8 million, then christening it by cooking dinner for friends: a West Indian gumbo with a chicken-and-rice dish that he learned from his mother, Maryse, a native of Martinique. When he's done playing, he plans to live in the city for the long haul. "For me it's pure love," says Henry, 33, who first visited New York on vacation in 1997 and has kept coming back. "You know the feeling the first time you come to New York? You turn around and say, 'I've seen this in a movie.' I always had a dream to come to New York and play soccer."
David Beckham's signing may have been the flashiest in Major League Soccer history, but Henry is the most accomplished player to join the league, a still-lethal finisher who scored 26 goals during Barcelona's run to the Champions League and Spanish titles in 2008--09. As the main attraction in his team's new $200 million stadium, Red Bull Arena, Henry is making soccer relevant in the New York area for the first time since the Cosmos' heyday more than 30 years ago. After 14 seasons of comical futility in MLS, New York was in first place in the Eastern Conference with one game left in the regular season, with a chance to win its first trophy when the playoffs start on Oct. 28.
"Everybody has been having jokes about this team before," says the man nicknamed Titi, who has two goals and three assists in 11 games with the Red Bulls. "You don't want to be a part of the jokes. You want people to say the Red Bulls compete to win. I think this is a team that can win a championship."
All things considered, it made sense for Henry to start his New York adventure this year. His high salary and the emergence of younger players had made him expendable at Barcelona, and his sterling French national-team career had ended on a down note. Henry drew global headlines last November when his uncalled handball led to the decisive goal that sent France to the World Cup at the expense of Ireland. And although he wasn't a central figure in the locker-room acrimony that helped send Les Bleus home from South Africa in disgrace, Henry was the player who had to meet French president Nicolas Sarkozy at the Élysée Palace afterward to explain it.
"Now people can understand how powerful soccer is in Europe," says Henry, France's alltime leading scorer. "You wouldn't see that for any other sport. Everybody wants to know what happened. I understand the passion, the sadness, the joy, the screaming, the cursing sometimes. But it's crazy."
Henry played in four World Cups for France, winning in 1998 and reaching the final in 2006, but his international retirement means he can focus entirely on the Red Bulls. That's no small thing. Beckham has played in only 51 of the Galaxy's 111 league games since he joined MLS in July '07, not least because his desire to continue representing England caused him to engineer two in-season loans to AC Milan. "For me [Henry] is a very different kind of story," says Red Bulls general manager Erik Solér. "This is a guy who comes to the U.S. and wants to stay in New York. He doesn't have an ambition to go back and play in Europe. He doesn't want to play for the national team. And of course he's not married to a female superstar. Thierry wants to play for us and concentrate on the Red Bulls."
If his first two months are any indication, the Frenchman has been a perfect fit in the locker room. One day Henry showed up at the team's training site in Montclair, N.J., bearing a large box of iPads—gifts for the Red Bulls' backroom staffers. On the field he has shared his wealth of experience from having won the World Cup, Champions League and English and Spanish league titles alongside such teammates as Zinédine Zidane, Lionel Messi, Ronaldinho, Xavi, Samuel Eto'o, Dennis Bergkamp and Patrick Vieira. "Our training sessions now are so much higher quality," says New York coach Hans Backe, crediting Henry and Mexican midfielder Rafael Màrquez, another expensive midseason acquisition from Barcelona. "They make a huge difference on every possession."
No Red Bulls player has benefited more than Dane Richards, a 26-year-old Jamaican international whose reputation as an all-speed/no-skill winger has changed almost overnight. During Henry's second practice with the team, in July, the Frenchman pulled Richards aside and said, "Dane, with your speed, if I turn and play to you, nobody can catch you." Since then Richards has revealed a newfound poise when attacking the goal. "What he said gave me so much confidence," Richards says. "I scored that week and haven't looked back." After failing to find the net in the Red Bulls' first 20 league games this year, Richards has four goals in the past eight games, becoming one of the hottest scorers in the league. "The way Dane's playing, he's been the star," says Henry.
Nor has Henry been just a set-up man. In a 3--1 win against Colorado on Sept. 11, he scored one of the classiest goals in MLS this season. Receiving the ball in the air on the left side, he flicked it with the outside of his left foot to midfielder Joel Lindpere, traded two more innocuous-looking passes with his Estonian teammate, then knifed toward the goal and took Lindpere's exquisite back-heel feed in mid-stride, finishing a hard-angled strike with the type of ease he showed while scoring 174 times for Arsenal from 1999 to 2007. It was a devastating combination of speed, guile and technique—one that made the Colorado players look like defenders on a Foosball table.
MLS needs the aesthetics Henry provides to win over fans who've dismissed it as minor league compared with the top European circuits. Henry has spearheaded some of the most entertaining teams in modern soccer—Barcelona, Arsenal, Zidane's France—and so far he's been pleasantly surprised by his American experience. "People were telling me, 'Don't expect much. It's not like in Europe. It's all direct long ball,' " says Henry, who sat out last Saturday's 2--1 loss to Philadelphia with a mild knee strain. "But I don't particularly agree. We've played against some teams that were trying to pass the ball. I've seen some good players in this league. And the fans: In Chicago I felt like I was at an away game in Europe. In Toronto and Houston too. The fields were great. I was very happy about it."
The positive vibe hasn't always been reciprocated by opposing fans. Henry earned catcalls in Dallas on Sept. 16 for a freak play in which he ran to hammer a celebratory blast into the net after a New York goal and caught the foot of Dallas goalie Kevin Hartman, putting the MLS Goalkeeper of the Year candidate out for three weeks with a sprained right MCL. "The most important thing for me was to apologize to him," says Henry, who was fined $2,000 by the league. "What I did was a stupid thing. I explained that I didn't mean to hurt him, and it was an accident."
Henry also is still adjusting to the peculiarities of sports in the U.S. Some things seem "weird," as he puts it: Having to dress in front of journalists in the locker room, a place regarded as the players' private sanctum in Europe, and teams being free to trade players at the drop of a hat. ("The guy wakes up, and they say you're gone," he says. "That couldn't happen in Europe. It's kind of harsh.")
At the same time, Henry finds other aspects of U.S. sports refreshing. While attending a Yankees game recently, Henry realized that he has never heard any racist taunts from U.S. fans. In 2005 he founded Stand Up, Speak Up, a campaign that encouraged European soccer players and fans to oppose racist behavior—which is all too common on the Continent, whether it's throwing bananas at black athletes or leading slur-filled chants. Henry himself was the subject of a shocking slur in '04, when Spain coach Luis Aragonés, imploring one of his defenders to play Henry aggressively, was overheard referring to Henry as a "black s---." Aragonés was fined 3,000 euros by the Spanish Football Federation.
"I've been to a lot of arenas to watch NBA games and the Yankees, and I have never heard anyone have a go at a guy because he's from Puerto Rico or the Dominican or Africa or wherever," Henry says. "I can understand why people in America are kind of shocked, because that doesn't happen in their sports. In Europe it's quite often, unfortunately, but now I think it's getting better."
Cheering like a madman is perfectly fine, of course, and you can expect Henry to give Spike Lee a run for his money sitting courtside at Knicks games in Madison Square Garden. A self-confessed NBA fanatic, Henry says he's dying to watch Turiaf, the French power forward who joined the Knicks this season, and Henry recalls with childlike glee riding in the boat parade on the San Antonio Riverwalk as Parker and the Spurs celebrated their 2006--07 NBA title. "It may sound stupid," says Henry, "but for me touching the NBA trophy was crazy. It was nice to see from the other side."
These days, as the Red Bulls eye their best chance to win an MLS title, the only question is how much longer Henry will enjoy the freedom to ride the PATH train. On an early fall afternoon in SoHo he's walking in a gray hoodie on Prince Street near Broadway when a gaggle of Frenchwomen halts in their tracks. "Thierry Henry! Thierry Henry!" they titter at Titi, stopping him for photographs. Now it's open season. A group of Mexican teenagers surround Henry and start snapping away. Before long the crowd is turning into a mob, and several hipster Americans are gawking at the global celebrity. "Is that the soccer player?" one asks.
Why, yes. Yes, it is. For Henry the recognition is both a blessing and a curse. Soccer matters again in New York City—and his days of anonymity are numbered.
Now on SI.com
Grant Wahl's Planet F√∫tbol column, every Wednesday at SI.com/soccer
HE HAS BEEN A PERFECT FIT IN THE LOCKER ROOM. ONE DAY HENRY SHOWED UP WITH A BOX OF IPADS FOR THE BACKROOM STAFFERS.
HENRY FINDS U.S. FANS REFRESHING—UNLIKE IN EUROPE, HE'S NEVER HEARD RACIST TAUNTS.
Photograph by SIMON BRUTY
MAIN MAN The Ireland incident and France's World Cup collapse behind him, Henry has New York's title hopes in his hands.
CARLOS M. SAAVEDRA
KICK-START The finest striker in Premier League history, Henry has immediately raised the Red Bulls' skill level on the field.
FACE IN THE CROWD Henry can still stroll incognito on the streets of Manhattan, though he's sure to be stopped by French tourists.