On the makeshift football turf at NSCI’s Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel Stadium in Mumbai on Wednesday, something unusual was happening. Arsenal legend Thierry Henry had the ball at his feet and was being beseeched by the Arsenal fans to score.
Ordinarily you wouldn’t need to ask Henry to score. After all, he’s a man who has put the ball into the net 228 times for the Gunners — often spectacularly.
“Henry, we want you to score,” the 3000-plus fans sang from their seats.
But the Frenchman made an exception and kept passing the ball to the young players from the Arsenal Soccer School, whom he was giving football lessons to.
Over the last few years, many former Arsenal players like Freddie Ljungberg, Robert Pires, Sol Campbell, Nicolas Anelka and Ray Parlour have descended on these shores. But the reception Henry got showed just how much he meant to a generation of fans who have grown up watching him play. For years, he had held them in a thrall with his skills. This was their moment to serenade him.
“How is India treating you,” the emcee asked the 39-year-old as he entered the stadium on Wednesday.
“Thierry Henry, Thierry Henry, Thierry Henry, Thierry Henry,” the crowd chanted in unison as if answering for him.
Finally, Henry was able to answer on the third attempt. “I wasn’t expecting this kind of reception,” he said simply as bedlam broke out in the stands again.
Henry charmed with his footwork, action and his words.
At his two-on-two football session with youngsters, he did not score a lot but showed that he was still a footballer whose game was tailor-made for slow-motion YouTube montages.
A young footballer finally managed what many seasoned defenders in the English Premier League could not: he tackled the ball away from Henry’s feet. As the crowd gasped, Henry merely shrugged and quipped: “Guys, I don’t have anything left to prove anymore.”
As the football session ended and the young footballers crowded him with requests to autograph their shoes and jerseys, they got more than what they were asking for. There were high-fives for everyone. Even fatherly bear hugs and ruffling of the hair for good measure.
A player even passed him a chit with a message for Arsenal midfielder Mesut Ozil, which Henry pocketed with a smile.
The Frenchman was on a charm offensive.
Eventually, he didn’t score many goals, but he won everyone over nonetheless.