It doesn’t matter if Thierry Henry was the best ever
As the former Arsenal forward heads into retirement, the usual conversations about his place in the pantheon have begun.
Here is a sentence about Thierry Henry, who retired from all football yesterday having played 792 games for Monaco, Juventus, Arsenal, Barcelona, and New York Red Bulls, scoring 360 goals in the process, on the way to five league titles and one European Cup, as well appearing 123 times for France, netting 51 goals on the way to one World Cup and one European Championship:
Thierry Henry is one of the best strikers in the history of top-flight English football.
That sentence is definitely true. Here is a another sentence about Thierry Henry, who etc. and so on and suchlike and so forth. This sentence is only possibly true.
Thierry Henry is the best striker in the history of top-flight English football.
The veracity or otherwise of that second sentence has been much debated since Henry announced his retirement yesterday. A poll on the Guardian’s website — limited to the Premier League, since everybody before that had silly haircuts, wore short shorts and played half-cut — is running 71% to 29% in favour of Henry being the absolute best. Though as ever, online football polls speak far more eloquently about the identity of the voters than the shape of the truth.
It’s a silly question, anyway, the question of who is the best. Not because it’s an impossible one: there is, presumably, an answer, even if it’s beyond human ken to work it out. An answer that takes into account all the myriad variables — adjust for weight of ball, quality of service, heaviness of shirt, generosity of officiating, variation in rules, weather in Stoke — which exist, in a theoretical sense, since the great unknowable equations of the universe click along, even if they’re out of sight. Maybe one day, if we refine our heatmaps and polish our percentages and manage to stay awake in the process, we might catch a glimpse of the workings.
(A website called the Football Pantheon — more on that word later — had a crack at the “who is the best player ever?” question a while ago and, after imposing a perfectly acceptable methodology, spat out a top three (in reverse order) of Johan Cruyff, Pele and Diego Maradona, a perfectly acceptable answer.)
But until that great equation is laid bare and nailed down, it’s a silly question. And even after that great equation is laid bare and nailed down, it’s a silly question. Football isn’t a thing that exists in isolation: it’s a thing that is experienced. The same is true for all its component parts, particularly the goals. And that experience is as much a part of football as the goal itself: every goal derives its meaning not just from the fact of its existence, but from the nature of its existence. From the way it looks. From the things it does. From the things it makes other people do.
(This is why goals in preseason and goals in World Cup finals are different. The only reason a World Cup final matters more than a preseason friendly is that everybody’s decided it does, then somebody whipped up a trophy to mark that fact.)
A goal’s value comes not just from the fact that it gives Arsenal the lead over Manchester United, but that it makes one person scream, another person faint, a third person burst into tears of rage, a fourth sink into silent misery, a fifth swear blind that they’re never going to watch this stupid, stupid game again, a sixth … well, you get the idea. Whether football can be art is a bigger question than we have space to address here, but it does a lot of the things to a person that art (high and low, if that distinction matters) is supposed to do. It hits a lot of the same places. It operates on the head, on the heart, on the back of the neck; on the fists and the knees and the groin. It arouses. It excites. It angers. It provokes. And it must do these things, and it cannot escape that it does these things.
(Yes, of course goals are subjective. Joy is subjective. So is despair. So is love. Imagine trying to be an objective person. Imagine how appalling a conversationalist that would make you. Imagine how vacant an existence that would be. Counting, counting, counting forever. Ignoring every flicker of all the things that make you, you.)
Saying “Thierry Henry is the best because his Premier League goals-to-games ratio is the best of all those who have scored 100 goals or more” is fine. It might even be correct. But saying “Thierry Henry is my best because he moved me in ways I’ve never been moved” is better. That’s what we’re all here for. That’s living.
So, a suggestion. Perhaps the best way to approach the greats is to embrace the theological implications of the word “pantheon” (which is at least consistent, since footballing brilliance is one path to modern divinity). Abandon the vexed question of whether he’s the absolute definitive best; embrace the fact that he’s one of several who have a right to be considered one of the best. Look at the state of the gods the ancient Greeks worshipped: some big ones, some smaller ones, supplemented by demi-gods and nymphs, Titans and giants, all forever bickering and snarking behind one another’s backs. That feels much better than a list. A mess. Now, choose your favourite. It’s not a conversation that can ever be won, because your best and his best and her best are different. Correctly different.
Or — if you’ll forgive a sudden jump in mythology — perhaps Valhalla is a better analogy. A hall of those chosen by the Valkyries (us) where the dead (retired) are taken if they’ve been brilliant, if they’ve been heroic, if they’ve killed (scored) heaps and heaps of whoever they were fighting against (goals).
Is Thierry Henry the best? Perhaps. Has he earned the right, along with Cantona and Bergkamp and Van Nistelrooy and Shearer, to be carried off to a great hall where there will be feasting and carousing forever, where he will drink ale from the skulls of the vanquished, until the final battle comes and the great wolf rises and winter claims us all? Absolutely. Though that, admittedly, is where the parallel breaks down a touch.