Thierry Henry, and touching the sublime

Posted on December 31, 2011 by

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Arsenal is reportedly close to completing a deal that will bring team legend Thierry Henry back to North London on loan from the New York Red Bulls for a two-month period. The thought of Titi back in an Arsenal kit is a joyful one for me, but when I expressed that joy on Twitter, I ended up in a friendly debate with HolgateEnd about legacy and longevity and all that they entail, and found myself trying to express feelings too complex to easily explain in 140-character bursts.

I’d say it’s probably no secret that I can get carried away by sports, and that I tend toward the poetic – rhapsodic, elegiac, or heaven forbid, epic – when writing about why sports matter to me, and my feelings in this case are no exception. (Call that fair warning, and proceed at your own risk).

Henry in his prime was absolutely dazzling. Trying to watch his feet as he darted up the pitch with the ball, tap-tap-tapping it every which way to evade defenders, pass it to teammates, or sneak it past the goalkeeper for one of his mind-boggling 226 goals was akin to trying to watch the wings of a hummingbird as it flashes from blossom to blossom gathering nectar: just a blur of movement and perfectly calibrated change, too quick for the human eye to see. His pace was breathtaking, his goals spectacular, his energy intoxicating. He was remarkable year after year, but 2003-2004, when Arsenal went unbeaten in the League, was maybe the standout year for most people.

For me, the year his excellence really came into focus was two years later. With Vieira gone, it became clear just how much of Arsenal’s game ran through Henry. I don’t think a goal was scored that year that wasn’t of his making. He scored a bundle of them himself – that was the year he became Arsenal’s all-time leading scorer while leading the League in goals – but more than that, he had a hand (er, foot) in creating nearly every goal he did not score. He set them up, he passed the ball in, he made the run, he created the space – in 100 different ways, he was essential to nearly every goal scored by Arsenal that year, and that year, more than in previous years, it was clear for all to see.

The issue at hand, though, is not whether Thierry Henry, in his prime for Arsenal, was great – there can be no question about that – it is whether returning now, at the waning of his career, diminished, will tarnish the memory of his glory years, whether he should have gone the Bergkamp route and just retired at the top.

I can see the argument for that, and I have nothing but respect for Bergkamp (that strange and lovely football aesthete who wasn’t interested in scoring any goal that wasn’t beautiful) and those who take that path – Harper Lee never published another book after To Kill a Mockingbird, Bill Russell was still a force when he stopped playing basketball, Rimbaud retired as a poet at the age of 19 – but I see no harm in Arsenal taking Henry for a two-month loan to see if he might still have something to contribute, smaller though that contribution might be. I also have respect for the love that keeps a player going even as his body slows or weakens or breaks down, for the joy in work and play that exists outside pure accolades.

Even if it turns out he has nothing to contribute now, what he did won’t be undone. History is part of what makes sports great. Being a fan has meaning because of our connection to the history, both the team’s own and – more importantly – our personal and/or familial histories around them. You can appreciate sports just as sports; you become a fan because of the stories you inherit and create around a player or a team. I hope that any young Arsenal supporter who might see Henry play now will not take that as his sum, but will look at the statue of him that graces the entrance to Emirates Stadium and ask about it, hear the stories of those who were wowed by him, watch the videos of his astonishing gameplay, and own that piece of Arsenal history as their own.

There is a quality I have always been drawn to wherever I find it: instances of humanity in the sublime and of sublimity in the profane: the bodhisattva who delays his/her own attainment of buddhahood in order to help others achieve enlightenment; Milton’s Lucifer cast down to Hell in gorgeous dissolution; Kropotkin giving up his princely inheritance and distinguished appointments to fight for everyone to have the same opportunities he did; the undying love for Lily Potter that redeemed all the bitterness of Severus Snape’s sad life; the moral strength that kept the Norse gods and heroes fighting for goodness and light even though they knew the forces of darkness would prevail in the end; the exquisite religious paintings Caravaggio created using prostitutes and beggars as models. I explain this not to ascribe religious significance to sports, but to say that this quality is present in sports, as it is in history or literature or mythology or art, and it is what elevates my enjoyment of sports to love. I don’t take it for granted that I got to see Pedro Martinez strike batters out in 2000, or Thierry Henry score a goal in 2004, or Tom Brady throw a touchdown in 2007. These were flashes of the sublime in their respective sports, moments of incredible achievement that elevated the games they were a part of to something more.

And given that, I can’t begrudge them their decline. What Pedro did for the Sox 1998-2004 was in no way diminished for me by seeing him play as a less dominant pitcher in subsequent years for the Mets and Phillies, and nothing Thierry Henry does or doesn’t do for Arsenal during this loan will change 1999-2007. He was sublime, but life means change and growth, and it means decline. There is a grace to be seen in the efforts of a human who was once as a god.

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