He’s a footballing legend, style icon and campaigner against racism, but becoming a dad is the greatest achievement of Thierry Henry’s life. The jet-heeled Frenchman talks exclusively to Matthew Weiner about caesareans, stem cell research and early, early mornings…
I don’t mind nappies. Full or half-full. They don’t bother me.” Worshipped by millions of fans the world over, the Arsenal and France forward Thierry Henry is the epitome of cool, oozing va-va voom whether strutting his stuff on Renault Clio ads or easing past defenders like they were practice cones. Yet there’s none of his characteristic shrugging or pouting as we ride in his American SUV from Arsenal’s training ground back to his Hampstead pad. Instead the 28-yearold is enthusiastically discussing his baby daughter’s dirty diapers. Usually when a £50 million star of Henry’s calibre talks to a member of the press it’s out of necessity; either he’s plugging a big match, a new football boot or a computer game. Inevitably, the conversation will be cliché ridden sludge punctuated by endless ‘as I said’s’ and ‘at the end of the days’ as the player makes it quite clear he’d rather be doing anything else than talking with you. This, however, isn’t one of those interviews. The Arsenal captain hasn’t been paid to talk to me and there isn’t a herd of journalists waiting impatiently behind me. The only reason I’m here is that Thierry Henry, like every new dad, is bursting to talk about the birth of his first born and how it has completely transformed his life in a way that no goal or trophy ever could.
Every football fan knew something was up at the beginning of the season at Highbury when Henry raced away from one of his trademark strikes making a ‘T’ sign with his fingers. That was the French forward publicly celebrating the birth of his daughter Téa. If you’re wondering if Thierry’s spent so much time in England that he’s now naming his progeny after the national drink then think again. Téa is pronounced Te-ah and originates from Theodore the Greek goddess of beauty – not a packet of PG Tips. “We liked it because it was original,” says Henry, “but I know people will call her ‘tea’,” he says, sighing in resignation.
Born on 27th May 2005, Téa Henry was delivered via caesarean section. This was not, as the striker is at great pains to point out, because Nicole Merry (Henry’s model wife who played his girlfriend in the Renault ads) was ‘too posh too push’. Téa was a ‘breeched baby’ – meaning she was sitting in the womb with her feet facing down – making a regular delivery impossible. “It wasn’t that Nicole didn’t want to push,” says Henry. “Its important to my wife that people know that.” Despite these difficulties, Henry refused to leave Nicole’s side. “I’m not bothered by the sight of blood,” he says. “I was there for the whole delivery.” When his daughter finally emerged it was one of the very few times in his life that the articulate Frenchman was left speechless. There was no ritual
cutting of the umbilical cord for the proud new dad though – instead the Henrys opted to have Téa’s umbilical blood stored. This new medical procedure, which costs around £500, involves the freezing of the baby’s stem cells for use in case it develops any serious diseases later on in life. “It was just a precaution but we felt it was worth taking,” says Henry.
Listening to Henry talk about his newborn is strangely akin to watching him play: fast, unpredictable and with more than a touch of poetry about it. When asked how he found the birth, he slips into an almost haiku-like stream of consciousness. “Nothing can compare,” he says, “I’ve won stuff in my life. Nothing can beat that. Nothing at all. It’s on another level. I just couldn’t speak. I was speechless. We did that. That’s us. Just looking at her.” You can’t help thinking that there are few Englishmen, let alone English footballers, who could express so much with so few words.
Ever since he arrived in the Premiership in 1999, it has been apparent that there is something special about Henry. Unbelievable as it may sound now, in his first few months at Arsenal, he shot blanks in front of goal – his strikes far more likely to dislodge the old clock high in the Highbury stands than end up in the back of the net. Yet Henry showed an unshakeable determination to succeed. Now considered one of the world’s best players, the forward credits his father for hammering his will into iron. Antoine Henry, an immigrant from Guadeloupe, thought nothing of making himself late for work by driving his son to games. “My father was always trying to make me understand that in order to achieve you need to give your all,” he says. “Fortunately I loved football. If I hadn’t we might have clashed.”
The salubrious suburbs of Hampstead may be a far cry from Les Ulis, the working class district of Paris where Henry grew up, but he is keen to pass on the lessons he learnt as a child to his own daughter. “It’s true, Téa will get chances in life that I didn’t have but I will make sure she knows you need to work hard to get what you want.” Although he denies his own father pushed him too hard, Henry admits he will take a more backseat approach to Téa’s life. “Sometimes you have to let people find their own way,” he says. His own parenting style may well have been infused with the rather more sympathetic approach of his ‘spiritual father’, Arsene Wenger.
It was Wenger that set Henry on to the road of success when he thrust the gangly 17-year-old into the first team at Monaco. Then, when the player appeared to have lost his way at Juventus, where he was stuck forlornly out on the wing, it was Wenger that paid £10.5million, brought him to England in 1999 and helped transform him into the player he is today. It has been suggested that it is this respect for Wenger that has been the tie that has kept Henry at Highbury even when the likes of Real Madrid and Barcelona have approached him. “Arsene is a great human being who is always willing to listen,” confides Henry. “That is something I’d like to offer Téa.”
|Adjusting to parenthood has not come as an enormous shock to the Premiership star. As a consummate professional, bars and nightclubs have long been a distant memory. “Even before I met my wife I wasn’t going out any more,” he says. “I got bored of clubbing when I was about 21. It’s always the same: always meeting the same people sitting at the same tables.” Henry may not be missing the late nights but the early mornings (Téa wakes for her morning feed at 4.30am) have come as a bit of a shock. “I need my sleep like everyone but when you know it’s for a good cause it’s okay!” says Henry laughing. “I turn up to training feeling sleepy but by 11 I’m okay”, he says. Gunners’ fans better start praying their fixture list doesn’t include any early kick-offs over the next few months. |
Of course, Arsenal’s number 14 is not the only Premiership player to have become a dad of late. Chelsea midfielder Frank Lampard recently became a parent too. “I saw Frank socially before his daughter was born and congratulated him then,” says Henry. “I’m sure he’s really enjoying himself now.” Lauren,
Arsenal’s Cameroon-born right-back, also has a young daughter and has been giving his captain the benefit of his experience. “We talk in the changing room,” says Henry, “Lauren’s daughter is slightly older so we talk about the stages they go through. He asks me what Téa’s doing at the moment and then might give me some advice or tell me what to expect next.”
Aside from his prodigious footballing abilities, Henry has shown himself to be a great campaigner against racism. The surprising subject of bigotry himself when the Spanish coach Luis Aragones referred to him as “that black shit”, Henry has become the face of the Stand Up Speak Up campaign and was recently featured on the cover of Time magazine for his efforts. Does he worry about bringing a child into such a world? “I don’t pretend I can educate everyone else,” he says. “All I can do is educate my own daughter that there are a lot of different cultures – she only has to see me and her mother to realise that.”
As the interview comes to a close, I begin to reflect on the theory that you can tell a lot about a man from the way he plays football. Consider the bubbling rage of Roy Keane, the childlike enthusiasm of Paul Gascoigne or even the unique style of Robbie Savage. Thierry Henry’s game has always been characterised not only by his total commitment to his club but also a compulsive generosity towards his team mates. If Thierry Henry is just half the family man than he is a footballer, then Téa has landed herself one hell of a dad.
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