Should Thierry Henry have won the Ballon d’Or?
He’s often cited as a generational player who inspired countless current stars. And as perhaps the greatest player of the Premier League era, the Frenchman’s reputation is unquestionably deserved.
That France Football’s prestigious gong has evaded him is certainly not a matter of limited talent. But it’s one thing to say Henry was generally good enough to have won the Ballon d’Or and another to identify a specific year in which he was, for want of a better word, robbed.
He’s far from the only world-class player not to be recognised by those who vote for the annual award. The likes of Luis Suarez, Neymar and the oft-quoted duo of Wesley Sneijder and Franck Ribery produced special years only for Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo to maintain their unprecedented duopoly.
However, Henry’s optimum form predated the Portuguese and Argentine’s decade of dominance. The Arsenal legend’s prime occurred during an era when it was normal for the Ballon d’Or to change hands. In fact, from 1999 onward (the year Henry joined the Gunners) a different player won it every year until 2010 when Messi became the first person to retain the award since Marco van Basten in 1989. Brazilian Ronaldo’s 2002 win was his second in total, though his first came 1997, before Henry was a genuine contender. The point is that the award was more competitive and far from the forgone conclusion it has sometimes been during Messi and Ronaldo’s reign as co-kings.
So how did Henry manage to miss out on the game of pass-the-parcel when he was indisputably among the very best in the world?
He was first shortlisted for the Ballon d’Or in 2000, the year France supplemented their World Cup triumph with victory at the European Championship. 22 years old at the time, he scored three goals in the tournament, including a neat finish through the legs of Fernando Couto in the semi-final against Portugal.
At club level, his debut Premier League campaign hinted at what was to come as he finished 1999/00 with 17 goals. He was also among the top scorers in Europe as Arsenal fell at the final hurdle in the Uefa Cup, succumbing to Galatasaray in the final.
A great year all things considered but even Henry’s friends and family would admit the Ballon d’Or would have been a flattering reward of embarrassing proportions. He finished a respectable fourth in the voting behind Andriy Shevchenko, Zinedine Zidane and winner Luis Figo.
Onto to 2001. 14 voting points (compared to Michael Owen’s victorious tally of 176) meant Henry just about made the top ten after another 17-goal league season. No complaints here as he continued his metamorphic process.
2002 is where things start to get interesting. Henry won the first Golden Boot of his career as his 24 goals inspired Arsenal to the title, an achievement bolstered soon after with victory in the FA Cup final. This was the first season in which the Frenchman’s numbers, as well as his style, were unparalleled in England’s top flight.
However, his Ballon d’Or bid was hindered by France’s dismal defence of the World Cup. Henry and co were eliminated at the group stage without scoring a goal. Couple this with Arsenal’s failure to progress to the knockout rounds of the Champions League and it’s clear why Henry was forced to settle for sixth in the voting.
Though the Ballon d’Or is meant to recognise individual brilliance, team achievements are inevitably a factor and nothing warps voters’ opinions like major international tournaments; which is the primary reason Ronaldo was named as the world’s best, having fired Brazil to World Cup glory. Make no mistake, the iconic No9 was a worthy winner.
Those who believe too much weighting is given to team achievements over individual performances may conclude Henry deserved more than sixth, but few would go as far as to say he should have won it. And besides, if you don’t win it, there’s not much difference between the subsequent placings, not to those with champion mentalities.
As a non-tournament year, 2003 represented an excellent chance for Henry to win the Ballon d’Or through his consistent brilliance at club level. From a personal perspective, he delivered. Not only did he match his previous season’s tally of 24 league goals, he proved himself to be an unmatched provider, finishing the campaign with 20 assists, a Premier League record that still stand today (jointly held by Kevin De Bruyne).
It’s easy to focus on the invincible season when adjudging Henry’s best campaign, but a strong case can be made for 2002/03. It’s not normal for a player to simultaneously act as prolific goalscorer and supreme provider. Imagine if De Bruyne scored three times as many goals. Stats-wise, that’s effectively the player Henry was in 2002/03. Despite this double-pronged lightning rod of an asset, Arsenal were pipped to the title by Man United. And not even an Henry hat-trick away to Roma could stop the Gunners exiting the Champions League at the group stage once again.
Arsenal’s failure to fully capitalise on Henry’s outrageous form (they did win the FA Cup) may have cost him the Ballon d’Or. He finished second behind Pavel Nedved, who had starred as Juventus progressed to the final of the Champions League, only to be beaten by Milan on penalties.
The Czech international scored against Barcelona and Real Madrid in the knockout stages to cap memorable performances. The Old Lady’s domestic success also owed a lot to Nedved’s cultured feet. The long-haired midfielder was a popular winner, but the question must be asked: was he truly better than Henry over the course of the year?
Henry’s claim to the throne was reinforced by his best ever calendar year at international level — 11 goals in 13 games. If the voters considered, as they are supposed to, the entire judging period without focusing so intently on three or four specific Champions League nights, it’s difficult to justify Nedved over Henry, despite the Juve legend’s obvious quality.
With that debatable injustice behind us, we come to 2004. Just the mention of this year induces a Pavlovian reaction of joy in Arsenal fans.
Henry spearheaded an undefeated league conquest as he became the first foreign player to score 30 goals in a 38-game Premier League season. Goals elsewhere took his tally in all competitions to 39, which only appears vaguely achievable because of what Messi and Ronaldo have normalised since.
Incredibly, Henry didn’t even rank in the top three come Ballon d’Or time. Andriy Shevchenko scooped the award with Deco (the creative hub of Porto’s unlikely Champions League victory) and Ronaldinho (Barcelona’s entertainer-in-chief) making up the podium.
If you need yet more evidence of how international tournaments affect Ballon d’Or voting, consider that Henry received just eight more votes (out of hundreds) than Theodoros Zagorakis. Greece’s shock win at Euro 2004 was the very definition of a team adding up to more than the sum of their parts, succeeding through organisation and discipline. Yet voters still felt compelled to place a Greek player among the world’s best, almost as if it were obligatory. Zagorakis deserved credit for his role in an underdog’s fairy tale, but in reality he should have never been within eight votes of Henry in an award designed to celebrate the individuality of footballers.
History repeats itself in this way. Think about the 2018 Ballon d’Or. Was Luka Modric truly better than Ronaldo throughout the year or did he just ride the crest of Croatia’s World Cup wave? Were there really four players who outperformed Messi over the 12 months or was he inordinately penalised for Argentina’s disorganised showing in Russia?
Retrospectively, Henry’s omission from the top three in 2004 appears a severe oversight. Traditionally, the completed season takes precedence in voters’ minds. But it’s possible Jose Mourinho’s exploits at Stamford Bridge in the second half of the year had taken some of the shine off Arsenal’s invincibility by the time votes were cast.
Henry not winning in 2003 or 2004 is not a disgrace by any means, but it deserves to be mentioned alongside the most notable years of Sneijder and Ribery, whose doomed pursuits are more commonly referenced. The latter two lost to Messi and Ronaldo, a statement that hardly needs expanding upon in terms of a counterargument, whereas Henry ranked below fellow mortals.
Henry can have few grievances about 2005, when Ronaldinho was crowned king. The Brazilian is one of few players from the Frenchman’s era who can claim to have had a greater influence on the next generation. Combining rewind-worthy skills with enough end product to steer his side to silverware, there is little resistance to the idea Ronaldinho was the best player in the world at his peak.
And so to 2006 where Henry once again finds himself the unfortunate victim of major tournament bias. Italy’s captain Fabio Cannavaro became the first defender in a decade to win the Ballon d’Or after the Azzurri’s success in the World Cup. Gianluigi Buffon was elected runner-up, leaving Henry with the bronze medal.
Here’s a question: did Zidane’s headbutt cost Henry a Ballon d’Or?
If Zizou keeps his cool, remains on the pitch, and sets the tone for the shootout with a similarly confident penalty to the one he scored in normal time, maybe France win the 2006 World Cup; an outcome that would surely have denied Cannavaro top billing.
Suddenly, Henry’s year looks unassailable. 27 goals in 32 league games, inspirational performances in Europe that took Arsenal to the brink of glory, and a World Cup medal heartily earned through three tournament goals, including the winner against holders Brazil in the quarter-finals.
The only man who could have denied Henry the 2006 Ballon d’Or in this alternate reality is Zidane himself, who produced a month of mesmerising football at the end of his career. Had the Real Madrid playmaker not embedded his skull in Marco Materazzi’s sternum, and France won, it’s likely he would have been favoured in the voting. Perhaps Zidane didn’t cost Henry a Ballon d’Or with his moment of rage; he cost himself one.
The issue remains whether Cannavaro and Buffon were objectively better individually than Henry in 2006. It’s impossible to compare forwards to defenders and keepers so we can’t draw any firm conclusions. However, when you consider 2003, 2004 and 2006 in unison, you can’t help but feel Henry should have come out on top at least once.
Injuries limited his involvement in the 2006/07 season, meaning he was never in the running for the Ballon d’Or, won by Kaka after Milan’s Champions League redemption against Liverpool.
Henry will be the first to admit he wasn’t even the best player in his squad from that point onward, as he joined Barcelona and watched as Messi and Ronaldo rocketed to superstardom as he eased out of his peak gracefully, thus ending our retrospective examination.
Should Henry have won the Ballon d’Or? Probably. Individual class could have placed the sought-after award on his mantelpiece in 2003. Orchestration of an historic team achievement should have counted for more in 2004. And the favourable bias attached to international tournaments may have unjustly scuppered him in 2006.
It goes without saying that Henry does not need a golden ball as evidence of his spectacular talent. But to many fans, it instinctively feels wrong that he missed out. And perhaps we’ve unearthed why.