LONDON — Jack Charlton, the former England World Cup winner and Republic of Ireland manager, always maintained that “in football, money buys your loyalty.”
Whichever club a player plays for he gives 100 percent, regardless of the shirt he is wearing. With this in mind I wonder if Thierry Henry’s thoughts about returning to Arsenal with Barcelona in the Champions League next Wednesday are designed to hide the reality of a professional so cold-eyed he had no problems cheating Ireland out of a possible place at the World Cup finals with his infamous handball for France in the playoffs.
Henry is an Arsenal legend after scoring 226 goals in his eight years as a Gunner and will be given a hero’s reception at Emirates Stadium as he faces his former club for the first time since his move to Nou Camp three years ago.
Or maybe Henry is being honest when he said he is not looking forward to the game. “Whenever there is a draw for the Champions League I’m in pain,” said Henry. “I’m not saying I won’t try to fight or whatever because that’s the way the game is. But I don’t want to play against Arsenal.
“It will be weird for me to step on the pitch, even if it’s at Emirates and not Highbury, with another shirt on.”
I cannot recall a professional ever saying he does not want to play in any game, let alone a Champions League quarterfinal. It is an astonishing admission, one that would make Charlton shake his head in dismay.
If Henry feels like that, can Pep Guardiola risk him even as a substitute next Wednesday?
Would the France captain be in the right frame of mind for one of the biggest games of the season?
Henry has recently returned to the side but this has been a far from vintage season for him, managing only three goals. Arsenal’s record goal scorer needs to prove he can still do the business consistently at the highest level and even France fans booed him as they were beaten by Spain recently.
He says he will not celebrate any goal out of respect to Arsenal, forgetting how disrespectful it would be to Barcelona to show no joy after scoring.
The return of Henry, the prospect of seeing Lionel Messi and Cesc Fabregas playing against the club he left as a 16-year-old, who would love to take him back to Catalunya, makes this tie the pick of the quarterfinals.
Fabregas said: “We are going to play against the best team in Europe, probably in the world. The boys are really looking forward to it as it is another opportunity to play against a great team in a great stadium. It will be very exciting.
“But had we had been drawn against Bordeaux or Lyon we would have taken it the same way. Barcelona are a great team, but we always go with the same mentality and that is to win. If you want to win this competition, you have to beat everyone who comes at you.”
If Arsene Wenger is to lead Arsenal to the European summit, it will have to beat holder Barcelona and then probably Inter Milan and Manchester United.
In Messi, Barca has a player who makes the impossible seem easy and, at 22, the Argentina international is far from at his peak.
At times the ball seems glued to his left foot as he sidesteps lunging defenders. Messi is right up there with Pele, Maradona, Cruyff and the very best in the history of football and very rarely disappoints.
While Emirates Stadium welcomes back a former superstar, north London should also give the best player on Planet Football the reception his incredible skill deserves.
THE FOOTBALL Association claims it is 100 percent in favor of progress. Unfortunately it is also 100 percent against change, which means the governing body of English football is like a pigeon flying into the wind.
The latest chief executive to discover he was working for an organization with more internal politics than the House of Commons is Ian Watmore who, nine months after his appointment, resigned after becoming another victim of the chronic instability inherent at the F.A.
For the sixth time in just over a decade the F.A. is searching for a chief executive, a post that should carry huge prestige but has been marginalized by the almost impossibility of moving the dinosaur forward.
The presence within the F.A. of representatives from the Premier League, Football League, the F.A. Council (made up of 92 members, including representatives from the three armed services plus Oxford and Cambridge universities and no, I am not kidding) ensures conflicts of interests and competing agendas.
Getting the bodies to agree on the priorities for English football — or even that there is a problem within the F.A. — is a meeting of the indecisive society.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for theLondon Daily Telegraph.