In the rest of the world, it is almost impossible to be more famous than Thierry Henry. When he played for Arsenal, the North London football club, the fans gave him his own song, which went (to the tune of “He’s got the whole world in his hands”): “We’ve got the best player in the world.” If Henry collected the ball in any position that looked even remotely advantageous, the entire stadium would go silent; nobody wanted to be distracted from watching the master at work. He has played for some of the biggest clubs in the world: Juventus, Arsenal, and Barcelona. He has a World Cup winners’ medal for France, a Champions League winners’ medal with Barcelona, and cup and league titles in France, Spain, and England, where he twice was named Player of the Year. He is a member of the French Legion of Honor.
Now he is standing on the platform of the Christopher Street PATH station. It is somewhere in the region of 97 degrees down here, and it smells like sweaty commuter and garbage. We’re on the way to Red Bull Arena because earlier this month, Henry signed to the New York Red Bulls for the next four and a half years. The 32-year-old is in full NYC-hipster mufti: gray-stenciled T-shirt, a pair of discreetly faded jeans, and a very white pair of Reebok high-tops. He has none of the screaming look-at-me attitude of the pro athlete; he is a perfect specimen of studied nonchalance. His relative anonymity is clearly a pleasure. “I couldn’t be doing what I’m doing right now in London or Barcelona. It just wouldn’t be possible.”
“You’ve no idea what it means to me to come here, to play, to enjoy the town,” Henry says. He is already looking forward to September, because “it will be less crowded, there won’t be so many tourists.” He made the pilgrimage to Rucker Park to watch the b-ballers in action. His friend Ronny Turiaf has just been traded to the Knicks. Henry’s been a Giants fan since the days of L.T. and can carry on a well-informed conversation about the 1991 Super Bowl and “Wide Right.” He loves old-school hip-hop and sneakers. He assures me there are great sneaker shops all over town: “I will find them. You just walk, and there it is.” Unlike in Barcelona, where there is only one cool sneaker shop.
Eventually he is recognized. Three Spanish men suddenly look up just as he is getting on the train. They whisper hurriedly among themselves and then jump on. They ask for autographs and photographs and want to talk to him about Barcelona. A couple of Japanese tourists giggle and point, and a man sitting across the train from us keeps grinning and trying to make eye contact with him. The Americans in the car look on, not getting it.
We get off the PATH train in Harrison, and there amid the industrial swamps of New Jersey is the new Red Bull Arena. It is his first tour of the stadium, and as we look around, Henry is impressed. “It’s a proper football stadium,” he says. Barcelona’s Camp Nou holds 100,000 people, Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium 60,000. The capacity of Red Bull Arena is 25,000. Henry insists that he has always wanted to play in America’s Major League Soccer, and that he had other offers but chose this one, in New York. “This is one of my favorite cities in the world. I always knew one day I would come to live here.” This is not media training; he seems to want nothing more than to be a New Yorker. I ask him what his plans for the evening are, assuming it’ll be full of velvet ropes and publicity appearances. The answer he gives is the one that’s been given by every NYU freshman since time began. He doesn’t know or care what he’s doing, but he knows it’s going to be exciting: “Here you don’t have to plan anything. That’s what I like; I don’t like to plan anything.”
Henry is, of course, not the first international superstar to transfer to MLS. I suggest that there might be a new East Coast–West Coast rivalry between him and Beckham, but he is ever so diplomatic. “People are going to try to create a buzz. I speak to him quite often. I respect him, he respects me.” What Henry cares about is getting back into shape. He’s had a three-week holiday since the World Cup, and he wants to be ready for his first MLS game, against the Houston Dynamos. Every team he’s ever played for has been hugely improved by his arrival, and he doesn’t want that to stop now. The Red Bulls currently lie second in the Eastern Conference; he wants them to be first. “I have to get back into shape.”
That day, he didn’t even have a locker yet. But all the shirts for sale in the club shop had his name on the back.