Oh, Henry!

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Okay, so forget about the Thierry Henry who became the worst cheater the world had ever seen by controlling a ball with his hand that set up France’s undeserved victory over Ireland—and the World Cup berth that came with it. For much of the decade before that, Henry had been famous as an icon of French footballing excellence; a player central to les Bleus’ World and European titles in 1998 and 2000 respectively; a star who’d captured every club title with pro teams Arsenal and Barcelona, and had personally bagged nearly every individual award in soccer out there (and a spot in Time’s 2005 Heroes list). Ronaldinhos have come and gone, and Cristiano Ronaldos have sparkled over time, but it’s hard to imagine a player in recent history beside Zinedine Zidane who has been doing the right thing at the right place at the right time more regularly than Thierry Henry.

So what the hell is Henry—France’s team captain to boot—doing as a designated bench warmer for the South African campaign?!

That’s a question many France fans (and virtually all of the nation’s pundits) are asking themselves now that coach Raymond Domenech has decided to use the most prolific scorer in national team history (51 goals in 121 selections) as a replacement–including France’s comatose 1-0 friendly loss to China Jun. 4 that saw Henry watching his flailing team mates from the sidelines for most of the game. Domenech’s decision is even more confusing after scrapping his lame offensive strategy that forced Henry to a hated left flank—a configuration responsible for France stinking the joint out during the 2008 Euro, and barely sneaking into this World Cup thanks to a clearly illicit goal–for a central attack that plays to Henry’s strength. In doing that, however, Domenech is teaming the excellent Franck Ribéry up with a pair of questionable offensive choices: Nicolas Anelka, who had a good season with Chelsea, but tends to fade to nothingness once he dons a France jersey; and Sidney Govou, an unremarkable player from Lyon whose main  distinction is his penchant for scoring once the outcome of matches have already been sealed. Rounding out the attack is another Chelsea gem–Florent Malouda–who in the wake of the loss to China has been busy warning people how much France’s offense needs to improve before World Cup play begins on Friday.

Given that, why is Domenech depriving himself a star like Henry? Because Domenche’s rule is that  players who don’t get much time with pro clubs don’t make the French team, while those doing mostly replacement service—as has been Henry’s case in Barcelona of late—will be buffing the bench with their derrières in South Africa, too. Never mind that during big, Money Time competitions experience often trumps physical conditioning—a logic gap that also caused Domenech to pass over defender Patrick Viera (who racked up 107 selections, and World and European titles with France) due to limited playing time this season. Domenech is also ignoring plentiful past evidence that it’s precisely marquee players who sat out injuries or found themselves benched with pro clubs that often wind up driving their sides deep into the competition with gang-buster performances by coming into tournaments rested, fresh, and fit.

The loss to China was only the most recent preparation match Domenech emphatically left  Henry to sit well into the second half. The coach has responded to the mockery and outcry that move has sparked by calmly insisting the 32 year-old star no long enjoys a starter’s status—unless something changes. Given the flaccid play of les Bleus during those friendlies, “something” may well come with Anelka, Govou, and Team France continuing to look lost in early group play, and force Domenech to do the right thing before it’s too late: starting Henry as his main offensive asset, and letting him do what he’s been doing for winning sides for the past 10 years.

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