It is 20 years since Thierry Henry sat on Arsenal’s team bus leaving Valencia’s Estadio Mestalla and wondered if he had done the wrong thing by mentioning the racist abuse he had suffered during the game.
‘I was thinking, “Should I have said that?”. It felt like it was taboo. Some people said, “Did he only mention that because they lost?”. Really? I later scored at Panathinaikos and I stood in front of their fans, arms folded in a stoic manner. They had made monkey noises all night. I was criticised for my celebration, even though I explained why. After that I said, “That can’t be right”.’
Two decades on and the message is the same, only the source of the abuse is different.
Thierry Henry believes a Premier League-led boycott of social media would be ‘very powerful’
‘There has been an evolution in terms of abuse being reported inside the stadium, people became braver,’ he says. ‘But now we have a new problem, the abuse has moved to social media.’
That is why Henry has deactivated all his social media accounts, vowing only to return when changes are made to protect users from racism, bullying and abuse.
The 43-year-old is talking to Sportsmail from his north London home, where the iconic image of the black power salute from the 1968 Olympics resides on the wall behind him.
He is animated and impassioned and offers a vivid analogy of his experience on social media.
‘If you go to a restaurant with amazing food and wine but every time you get in a fight, why would you go back? You would say to the owner, “Hey, great food, but I like my nose and teeth. If you don’t sort out who comes in here, put some security on the door, I’m not coming back”.
‘Imagine saying to people, “Yeah, I’ve been to that restaurant 25 times and I always leave with a broken nose… but the food is good”. It doesn’t make sense.
‘If we do not alert people to the problem then nothing happens. That is why I have taken my own action, not for applause, but to highlight the issue. Social media is a wonderful and important tool, but it needs to be safe.’
The football legend deactivated his own account until more is done to regulate platforms
Henry wants better accountability where all users are verified by way of official documentation. He does not, he stresses, want to take young people away from those networks. But, at the same time, he is concerned by the ‘like’ culture that dictates the happiness or otherwise of the current generation, including his own daughter.
‘My daughter was complaining to me that people were not reaching her on Instagram. She wanted “likes” and “comments”.
‘I said, “Hold on a minute, weren’t you at school with your friend just now?”. “Yes”. “So you guys talked about life and communicated?”. “Yes”. “So why are you mad that they did not make a comment on your picture?”. It seemed like her day was ruined. A lot of people look for approval on social media, it is why they go back for more, even though hate exists there.
‘I have seen it myself as a manager. The first thing players do after the game is check what fans or pundits said about them.
‘I’m like, “Wouldn’t you like to speak to your team-mates first? Can we just have 30 minutes of talking between us?”. I see them scrolling down, “Can I read on? Yes, yes, oh no…”.
‘The Wales players who were racially abused online last week, Ben Cabango and Rabbi Matondo, they should not have to see that after a game.
‘And the answer is not, “Don’t go on social media”. You need to understand the new generation, not tell them what to do.
Henry believes taking the knee is a powerful gesture but more action needs to be taken
‘My dad couldn’t understand us playing video games. If he took the controller from my hand, I was like, “What, why would you do that?”. So you need to live with your time.
‘This is about those in power protecting people’s mental health, and not prioritising copyright infringements. There must be more they can do.’
Henry takes us back to his childhood in the Les Ulis suburb of Paris, where he was not exposed to racism given the diversity of his community. He is making the point that children today are more vulnerable.
‘With the internet, social media, instant pictures and videos, children see more hate, there is more outside influence,’ he says.
‘I had no internet and we had three TV channels. We didn’t even have a remote control. I was the remote! My dad would say, “Go on, son, change that channel”. And all we flicked between was the football and Benny Hill! He was huge in France.
‘It was only when I was older and started to play football away from my neighbourhood that I thought, “Hold on a minute, it looks like I have disturbed people. They are looking at me like I shouldn’t be here”.’
The former striker stepped down from his role as Montreal Impact manager in February
Our conversation moves on to the old mantra of, ‘Just ignore it, do not let them win’, and it clearly irritates Henry.
‘You should not have to ignore it,’ he states, with some force.
‘When I was racially abused on the field, guys would say, “Thierry, just ignore it”. OK, I ignore it. One time, two times, 20 times. At what point can I have the opportunity not to ignore it? Ignoring it makes it easy for the people who should be taking action.’
To that end, as well as his social media stand, Henry wants clear protocols introduced for when racist abuse occurs during a game. ‘We need rules where we stop the match. If someone attacked the referee, we’d stop. But when a player tries to walk off, everyone says, “Don’t go, stay. If you do that then they win”.
‘No, it’s not about that. They will continue to win until the people in charge see what they can do better. Do not leave it to the individual who has been abused. Why should they have to make the decision?’
Henry believes change would be accelerated were representation at governance level not so demographically narrow.
‘If you sit at the table of whatever federation, and you do not have representatives of different communities, how do you expect people around the table to understand? Be that the black community, women’s football, religion or sexuality. If you’re not there to talk about it, how can you have an impact?’
He illustrates his point by asking where I live. Newcastle.
‘OK,’ he begins. ‘What do I think about Newcastle? Er, they have a nice stadium and the fans are amazing. I can talk about Shearer and Asprilla and I played there with Monaco… but that’s it. If you want to have a conversation about Newcastle and understand what has to change in Newcastle, you need people from Newcastle. Not me, from a suburb of Paris.’
Henry announced he was deleting his account because ‘the torture is too toxic to ignore
Henry turns to the black power picture over his shoulder, in which African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised a black-gloved fist on the podium.
He draws comparison with footballers taking the knee, as he says: ‘Everyone was debating, “Shall we kneel or stand?”. That is not the point. Yes, they are powerful gestures, but it is about the cause. It is about bringing accountability and change, we cannot lose sight of that.’
Henry does, though, believe that a one weekend social media boycott led by Premier League clubs and their players would make a statement.
‘I am not putting anyone under pressure, it should be a feeling you have inside. But you should never underestimate the strength of the pack. Can that (a weekend boycott) be powerful? Yes, very powerful.’
Fast forward 12 months, or even five years, and what does Henry want to be talking about?
‘I like to talk, but I’ve had enough of talking. I don’t have the power to change the rules or to block hate. But that is what I want to see. I’ve had enough of people asking me, I’ve been saying the same thing for a long time. I’m not ducking the question, but it’s the only way to answer it. It’s over to those with power now — only they can make the difference we need.’
Henry stood down as head coach of CF Montreal in February to be closer to his family in London.
He invited Sportsmail to Montreal’s pre-season camp in Florida last January, where he said: ‘As a manager, you have to keep the car engine running outside.’
The intimation was that you never know how long you will be there.
The former Arsenal man believes players should not have to just ignore the abuse they receive
So what is the engine doing now? ‘My car right now is in the garage,’ he laughs. ‘There is no address in the GPS!
‘I want to coach, that’s for sure. Whatever project is next, hopefully it will be something I can build.’
Henry was heavily linked with Bournemouth in February and is expected to be again in the summer. How close did that get?
‘Wooah! How close? By car, two hours from London!’ He was not expecting that question. In fact, the time for questions is over. It is answers Henry wants now.