As the final seconds ticked away at the World Cup Final last Sunday in South Africa and Spain began to party, many American fans wondered when the next big thing would happen in soccer. It turns out they didn't have to wait very long. Thierry Henry, one of the leading players in Europe, agreed this week to a contract with the New York Red Bulls of Major League Soccer.
This isn't exactly like winning the World Cup or beating Brazil, but it's a big step forward for soccer's continued growth in the United States. Henry, who is of Afro-Caribbean heritage and grew up in a Paris suburb, gives American soccer something it hasn't had since Pele's tenure with the New York Cosmos in the '70s: a black star as its public face.
Soccer is growing rapidly in the United States. It is the number one sport in youth participation, and the World Cup Finals attracted some 24.3 million U.S. viewers, making it the most watched soccer broadcast in American history. But the "beautiful game" still faces substantial barriers to acceptance in the black community. Mike Curry, head of the diversity committee of the National Soccer Coaches Association of America, put it bluntly in an interview with ESPN Soccernet's Maria Burns Ortiz: "Soccer is still very much a white middle- to upper-middle-class game."
Henry's arrival is not the only sign of change. Groups like America SCORES and the Urban Soccer Collaborative are working to encourage soccer in the inner city and enable standout players to hone their skills. Black collegians have won the last three M.A.C. Hermann awards, which goes to the best collegiate soccer player. And the U.S. national team has featured several black players, including DaMarcus Beasley, Josy Altidore, Maurice Edu and Oguchi Onyewu.
What makes Henry different is his level of accomplishment and his media friendliness. He's charming and articulate; it is easy to imagine him trading barbs with David Letterman or chatting amiably with Oprah. And his résumé is unparalleled among players in the United States. Henry, who will turn 33 in August, has had a career filled with success. He was a key part of the French team that won the World Cup in 1998 and the European Championship in 2000, and made it to the World Cup Finals in 2006. In 123 international matches, he scored 51 goals. (For a point of reference, Pélé, arguably the greatest soccer player ever, scored 77 in 92 international matches.) Henry led Arsenal, a top-ranked team based in London, to two of its three English Premier League titles.
Henry is highly unlikely to be another David Beckham, who signed with the L.A. Galaxy three years ago amid hype that nearly rivaled LeBron James' "decision." However, Beckham divided his time between Europe and America as he tried to make it to one more World Cup for England, and the brief bump in popularity that the sport enjoyed from to his presence quickly faded.
There was an international outrage over the missed call, and even Henry suggested that in the name of fairness, the match should be replayed (though the sport's governing body, FIFA, turned a deaf ear to such demands). In this year's World Cup, France turned in a desultory performance, scored only one goal, failed to win even one match, suffered a team mutiny and didn't advance beyond the first round of the tournament. Thus, the Red Bulls and America offer one of soccer's leading men a fresh start. And he arrives at a time when his celebrity could rise quickly here.
Henry's signing is another big step in a long road to the mainstream for soccer in America. It may be a generation before the sport finds itself on the same footing as the NBA or Major League Baseball, but the NFL's rise didn't happen overnight. The forward pass, the play that elevated the league from a variation of rugby to a more up-tempo and telegenic sport, became an integral part of the game in the early '40s, but the NFL didn't become a national pastime until the mid '60s. It may take a comparable period of time for soccer to become vastly popular in America, but its rise seems inevitable. Even more so with Thierry Henry in a Red Bulls jersey.
Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root. Follow him on Twitter.