LONDON – Soccer moves on quickly in the 21st century. The pace of the game on the field of play is matched by the transience of matters off it, with a flutter of cash morphing cherished heroes to sworn enemies in the blink of an eye. So to see a modern icon welcomed back with warmth, gratitude and a sense perspective, as Thierry Henry was today by Arsenal fans at the Emirates Stadium, was an experience to cheer.
A tangible excitement swept around the ground, even pervading the world-weary surrounds of the media center beneath the pitch, with pre-match rumors circulating that Henry would don the red and white of Arsenal for one last time to please the fans - and no doubt himself, as he has remained an unabashed supporter of the Gunners ever since his departure. The fact that eventually didn't transpire speaks volumes for Henry's enduring professionalism.
Whereas his reputation in the British Isles may have taken a beating following the infamous handball incident that helped decide France's World Cup play-off against the Republic of Ireland in November 2009, Henry is still treated with reverence in London N5. The scorer of 226 during eight years at Arsenal, his return to the place he has called "back home" saw an outpouring not just of gratitude for his contribution to Arsenal's 21st-century achievements, but a welcome reminder of more trophy-laden days.
The Emirates Cup, now in its fifth year, is an intriguing pre-season tournament, bringing high-caliber opposition from all over the world (past participants include Real Madrid and Juventus), and a slightly more lively atmosphere than normal to this magnificent arena, with access opened beyond the normal circle of season-ticket holders and members. If the lack of transfer heat generated by Arsene Wenger - as he struggles to hold onto Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri - has created a certain ennui around the club's fans, the nostalgia generated by the return of one of Arsenal's greatest-ever players helped to postpone worrying about the future for another day.
In this sense, Henry's return is easily interpreted as the latest in a long list of reasons that Wenger has to be thankful to the Frenchman. The sense of occasion meant that a Mexican wave enveloped the stadium instead of moans and groans filtering down from the stands as Arsenal struggled to penetrate during a spartan first-half. The cheer that welcomed Robin van Persie's goal, just before half-time, felt like an exhalation of minor relief following a stalling display.
Henry's own contribution had been fitful, but speckled with enough stardust to keep his former congregation interested. There seemed little case of split loyalties - in this relatively informal atmosphere, Arsenal fans wanted to see Thierry do his thing. On his first touch of the ball, loud cheers sprang up from the home support, a murmur of disappointment descended as he lost possession, and a round of appreciative applause followed the conclusion of the action.
An 11th-minute turn and shot on the edge of the area, which sauntered by the prone Wojciech Szczesny's right-hand post, was greeted with a sigh of anticipation. The spring in Henry's step, on the eve of his 34th birthday, was palpable, as he jockeyed the ball out of play facing his own byline pressured by an eager Alex Song, and he almost had another goal in front of the same North Bank where he had vanquished Manchester United, but Szczesny clawed away his 24th-minute free-kick.
There is no suggestion that Henry had just come for the show, though. A self-confessed "bad loser," he was involved and switched on, and appears to revel in a senior role, as he stood going through tactics with Hans Backe during a first-half drinks break, and he exhorted team-mates throughout, as Backe's on-field mouthpiece.
This tidy New York side, which impressed with the zip and invention of its game against Paris Saint-Germain on the opening day of the Emirates Cup, appears well served by a lean and motivated Henry. He remains industrious, with his linger in the goalmouth to absorb a bit more of a sold-out crowd's adoration after a second-half New York corner had been cleared.
His grimace, after he narrowly failed to curl a 70th-minute shot around Szczesny when released by Dane Richards' pass, bore witness to his continued desire. But in a strange sort of a way, he got his fairytale ending. An own goal may lack the glamor of a 30-meter piledriver, but Henry's sublime reverse pass to find Roy Miller, giving the left-back the opportunity to force Kyle Bartley to put the equalizer into his own net, was far more fitting reward for the former legend than a choreographed lap of honor. Henry is a hero worth his salt.