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Jul 25, 2014

Talking soccer with Wenger and Henry

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger says that there is not enough rest time between the World Cup and the start of the European season.

HARRISON, N.J. -- Arsene Wenger strode into the skybox high atop Red Bull Arena looking trim, fit and uncharacteristically serene for a man who is known to hurl plastic water bottles and frantically fiddle with the zipper of his oversized parka in moments of frustration -- of which there have been many in the past decade at Arsenal.

He was wearing a red and white nylon warm-up jacket and a pair of blue shorts that were considerably looser and longer than the uncomfortably snug Brazilian bathing suit he rocked on Copacabana beach during the World Cup. Perhaps you saw the viral video of the 64-year-old Frenchman performing a textbook diving header in a game of soccer volleyball that wowed the bikini crowd and evoked comparisons to Robin van Persie's golazo against Spain.

The relationship between Wenger and Henry is one of mentor and apprentice, with plenty of mutual respect.
The relationship between Wenger and Henry is one of mentor and apprentice, with plenty of mutual respect.

"Van Persie's was better," Wenger said with a wry smile in an interview with ESPN FC ahead of Saturday's love fest with Thierry Henry and the Red Bulls. "It was more technical and compact than mine, and I congratulated him on it when I ran into him at the hotel we shared with the Dutch team."

It was also a couple of weeks too early for the once-beloved Dutch striker to congratulate his former boss on one of the transfer coups of the summer -- acquiring the Chilean gunslinger Alexis Sanchez to fill the huge attacking void left by the departure of The Greatest Striker That Never Lived, Nicklas Bendtner.

“It upset me to hear the fans boo him after all [Wenger] has done for the club, but sometimes people don't miss you until you're gone.”

But there is another reason Wenger is carrying a lightness of being, as he no longer has to lug around that rancid trophy-less burden. Arsenal finally banished their almost decade-long silverware drought in May with a nerve-shredding, come-from-behind FA Cup victory over Hull City. For Wenger, who had endured a season of near mutiny among the Emirates faithful, the occasion was nothing less than a catharsis.

"It upset me to hear the fans boo him after all he has done for the club," said Henry on Thursday about the man he credits with making him into a world-class player, "but sometimes people don't miss you until you're gone." I can only hope this is true for my 1974 prom date.

Earlier in the day, The Star Pupil had taken The Professor to inspect the manicured Red Bulls field, gleaming in the sunshine. There was none of that fierce, narrow-eyed intensity that makes Wenger and Henry two of the world's most driven and competitive people when they step on the pitch. Instead there was a familial ease, a warm paternalistic bond that has lost none of its enduring strength over the intervening years since they were joined at the Arsenal hip.

It doesn't matter that they no longer reside in the same competitive universe; theirs is a relationship forged in mutual respect and a supremely productive soccer partnership.

Wenger and Henry joined forces in 1999 and went from strength to strength together.
Wenger and Henry joined forces in 1999 and went from strength to strength together.

Wenger would not be Wenger -- the eminence grise of the Premier League, with an astonishing record of 17 consecutive Champions League berths -- without Henry's 228 Arsenal goals, and Henry would not be Henry -- one of his generation's most intelligent and stylish players -- without Wenger's tactical genius and savoir faire.

"He's like a father to me," said Henry, whose normally light-hearted tone grew increasingly emotional when speaking about Wenger. "We can talk all day about football, but also about life. He believed in me from the very beginning and gave me the chance to repay his trust. But it took a while to earn it. You had to perform to a very high level. If you didn't do the job, he'd say 'What the hell is this?' But I understand that. No one is tougher on me than myself."

That awareness and drive was palpable watching Henry over the years at Arsenal, Barcelona and the New York Red Bulls. He holds himself to an exacting standard, and he expects no less from his teammates.

Henry's stern demeanor isn't unique to the Red Bulls -- it's just an expression of his competitive spirit.
Henry's stern demeanor isn't unique to the Red Bulls -- it's just an expression of his competitive spirit.

"I don't buy the theory that I look any more frustrated on the pitch than I did at Arsenal," he said, bristling for the only time in a 15-minute interview. "Does it bother me when someone makes the wrong pass? Yes, but if you saw me at Arsenal, it bothered me there, too. And I'm just as annoyed at myself when I make a bad play. I still have a passion for winning. When you lift a trophy, your smile is that much bigger."

Right now, the Red Bulls don't have much cause to smile even faintly, sitting fourth in the Eastern Conference. "As much as I'm looking forward to playing against Arsenal, my mind is really on Wednesday's game against Real Salt Lake and how we can get three points. I'm sure Saturday will be a great occasion and I don't want to spoil the party, but win or lose, what matters is us getting back on track in the championship race."

For his part, Wenger too is looking beyond Saturday's reunion toward the start of the Prem in 23 days (but who's counting?). At the mention of the league kicking off concomitant with Chelsea leading and Manchester United trying to keep up in the transfer arms race this summer, I notice a familiar pinched look wreath the Frenchman's face and ask what happened to the carefree mood he displayed in Brazil.

"There is nothing to get stressed out about on the beach," he said. "There are two aspects to my personality. One is relaxed and the other is very, very intense."

The signing of Alexis Sanchez has Wenger pleased, but there's still plenty of angst about the new season.
The signing of Alexis Sanchez has Wenger pleased, but there's still plenty of angst about the new season.

Given the unending demands of the job, the fickleness of the fans and the fact that he's established an iconic legacy at Arsenal, why not just stay on the sand?

"Funny -- my wife asked me that same question before I signed my new contract," he said, flashing that insouciant grin again. "But I can't imagine my life without football, and I still have the passion to succeed. This is a profession where you suffer a lot. The sport can drive you mad. Sometimes I frighten myself when I see how tense I am on the touchline. But football also gives you great rewards. And for those brilliant moments of happiness, I am ready to suffer again."

Here's to many more brilliant moments.

David Hirshey

David Hirshey has been covering soccer for more than 30 years and has written about the sport for The New York Times, Time, ESPN The Magazine and Deadspin. He is the co-author of "The ESPN World Cup Companion" and played himself (almost convincingly) in the acclaimed soccer documentary "Once in a Lifetime."