It’s the dirty little secret that really isn’t a secret at all.
I love soccer.
While some of you are sitting there saying, “Tell us something we don’t know, Ed. We see you talking on Twitter about soccer all the time,” the truth of the matter is I’ve never truly felt comfortable discussing here on this blog. You see, I’ve never actually “played” the game of soccer. I didn’t even grow up watching the game as a youth. The old men in my family never sat me down to talk about the intricacies of the game, days of past glory, and tales of legendary goal scorers. Soccer is a sport that I found on my own journey as a sports fan.
“I need for all of y’all to feel what I’m going through…and see what I see, if you got time to take a walk with me…Wait a minute now…” — Joe Budden
So when I tell you that my love and appreciation for the “beautiful game” can be attributed to Thierry Henry’s greatness, just understand that it’s not a game with me.
While I could go into poetical wax about how I was first introduced to Thierry Henry during the 1998 World Cup, where, as a 20-year-old, Henry was the top goal scorer for a French side who took home their first-ever World Cup championship, the realness of Henry didn’t hit me full stride until after the World Cup was over.
The ’98 World Cup was when he hit my radar, and as an impressionable, rubbery-brained 15-year-old, I looked for soccer players that looked like me and someone I could relate to. Henry was that guy. A black footballer with an innate ability to talk crazy to opposing players and perform well in the clutch. Yep, that’s my guy. So while his performance on the international level piqued my interest, the game at the club level is where the best ball is played. Thierry Henry’s performance at the World Cup also piqued the interest of Arsenal (a top club in the English Premier League, one of the top leagues in the world…yes, I have to write this out because there are some of you that might be like…what?) and signed the striker to a long-term deal.
And that’s when The Gunners acquired a new fan and made me want to buy all of their football kits.
Truthfully, I didn’t know what I was getting myself into, but watching Henry grow into being the best footballer in the world was fascinating. A brute of an attacking forward, I watched Henry become a virtuoso performer against the best teams in the world and thrive in rivalries like Arsenal vs. Liverpool. Gunners manager Arsene Wenger once said of his fellow Frenchman: “Thierry Henry could take ball in the middle of the park and score a goal that no one else in the world could score.” From his ability to calmly score from one-on-ones, to his ability to get behind defenders regularly enough to score with pure speed, and at 6’2″ and almost 200 pounds, dude was a beast in the air and around the goal. You weren’t moving Henry off the ball.
When Henry helped lead Arsenal to the best season in Premier League history since 1889 (yes, 130 years ago), as The Gunners went undefeated in 2003-04, thus leading the team to be dubbed “The Invincibles,” I was officially hooked for life. Not only to the Henry, but to the team, and to the game. I love soccer, I love talking about it, and it’s a game I’ve finally felt comfortable writing about at a proficient level as of today.
The English Premier League begins Saturday morning, and if you were on the fence on ever watching, consider giving the game a chance. Find someone you recognize from the 2010 World Cup, or ask one of your friends about a team they like (just don’t choose Manchester United) and give it a shot. I’m consumed, and quite possibly you could be too.
All hail Henry for bringing me to this point. Thank you, sir.
Eddie Maisonet is the founder and editor emeritus of The Sports Fan Journal. Currently, he serves as an associate editor for ESPN.com. He is an unabashed Russell Westbrook and Barry Switzer apologist, owns over 100 fitteds and snapbacks, and lives by Reggie Jackson’s famous quote, “I am the straw that stirs the drink.”