Red Bulls captain Thierry Henry has recorded a countless amount of goals, wins and championships over his star-studded career. His story from his beginnings in French soccer to his legendary status at a number of elite clubs and on the international level has been well documented many times.
One individual in his story who is particularly of note is a man named Arnold Catalano.
Twenty-three years ago, AS Monaco was overseen by current Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger, who helped the French club earn success. In 1988, Monaco won the Ligue 1 championship and took home the Coupe de France in 1989 and 1991, while qualifying for the European Cup consistently. During this time, a number of noteworthy players came through Monaco, including Jurgen Klinsmann, Youri Djorkaeff and George Weah.
Wenger also helped build a strong youth program which helped produce some of the players which were part of the French World Cup-winning team in 1998. In 1990, Monaco had a seasoned scout in Paris with an eye for talent, and the Les Ulis neighborhood in France’s capital housed a talented 13-year-old that would be part of this movement: Henry. That scout, Catalano, was recently in New York and sat down with NewYorkRedBulls.com recently to discuss his career and his discovery of one of the greatest strikers in the history of the game.
NYRB: So you went to see the game against the Revolution on Oct. 5, I hear?
NYRB: First time seeing Thierry with the Red Bulls. What was it like?
AC (through translator): It was good. It’d been a while since I had seen him play in person. I think the last time I saw him was in Rome for the Champions League final between Barcelona and Manchester United a couple of years ago. No, but to be physically at the stadium, I really liked it. It was a good atmosphere.
NYRB: It was a good game, for sure. So, now, how did you start out scouting?
AC: At the beginning, I was coaching 14 year olds at a pro club in Paris called Metro Racing. When the first team coach left for Sochaux, they were looking for a scout near Paris for that age group. At the time, Sochaux’s training academy was well respected. I worked there for two years. The managers at AS Monaco must have liked what was doing there, but in any case they asked me to do the same job for them: scouting in the Paris area. It’s a region that represents a fifth of the population of France, so it’s an important talent pool.
NYRB: How long ago was this?
AC: Twenty-three years ago. I worked for nine years in the Paris area for Monaco, but then I took the job of running their scouting program for the 13- to 14-year-olds up until the 18-year-olds, so I had to move to Monaco.
NYRB: How did you get these kids to leave their families and try to pursue a job as a professional soccer player?
AC: Well, the first step is making a choice. There are limited spots, so you have to be selective. You have to be convinced that you’ve made the right choice before you get in touch with the family. It takes lots of observation to even get to the point, as a club, to propose a contract, and it’s only after that you contact the family.
NYRB: How many kids did you get to bring in when you were at Monaco?
AC: For each age group? 20. That was how many the club could afford to put up and manage. The program lasted for three years, because the French Football Federation mandated that the first contract offered had to be for three years.
NYRB: Is Thierry Henry the most famous player you scouted while you were at Monaco?
AC: Yes. Look at his career. It speaks for itself. There were others who became internationals, but not at Thierry’s level.
NYRB: I’m told that the first time you saw Thierry play, he scored six goals. Is that right?
AC: That’s true, but he scored them without breaking a sweat.
NYRB: So did you think, or at least suspect, that this was a player who could go on to win the World Cup?
AC: No. All the young players that I’ve heard about who were supposed to be phenoms… I don’t work like that. It’s unprofessional to think that right away. In that era, the number of contracts at professional clubs were limited, so the chance to get a contract right out of the academy wasn’t a given. It was really hard. The club had space for 19 first team contracts and not one more, so it was really difficult to get a professional deal directly out of the academy. When that class of 20 players reached the end of their three-year contract, only one, maybe two, would make it to the first team. Even at Monaco, which was top of the League at the time.
NYRB: Did you stay involved in Thierry’s development at Monaco after you discovered him?
AC: Oh, yeah, of course. I followed his progress on my own, sure, but even at the club level I had to keep an eye on him. The contract I signed him to was a pre-contract, because he wasn’t allowed to join the actual club until two years later. I followed him in my capacity as Monaco’s Parisian scout to check on his progression, his behavior, and after he went to Monaco, I stayed in contact with the scouts and trainers. Even after he left for Juventus, though, I kept in contact with him through his brother, and a little bit through his dad.
NYRB: How often have you talked to Thierry over the course of his career? Just a congratulations after he scores a great goal or after winning a title?
AC: I’ve never had the attitude of a supporter. When I had to get in touch with him, I’ve talked to his brother. I went to the Champions League final [to see him], but I’ve never asked for a jersey, for example. I’ve never wanted to stay stuck in his life. I knew what he was doing, but I’ve never been a supporter for Thierry. Any time I’ve asked for a favor from him, he’s been very open. I saw the World Cup Final thanks to Thierry. But I could have gone to London, and I never went. I could have gone to Barcelona, and I never went. I always had the opportunity to do that, but I’m not the kind of person who wants to ask for every little thing from someone. That’s just who I am.
NYRB: Do you take any credit for getting Thierry Henry’s professional career started?
AC: Look, if there’s anyone who owes anything to anybody, it’s me who owes Thierry, because his success validated my work. That much is certain. Each time I signed a player, I did it thinking that the kid could become a professional, whether it was Thierry or someone else.
But I remember the day that he came to sign with us. Thierry and his dad came to Monaco one morning, ate in the cafeteria, Arsène (Wenger) came out to say hello to them, then they signed the contract, and that evening I drove them back to Paris. And I remember telling Thierry: “Your success depends on no one else but you. You have the potential to succeed, and for you success is becoming a professional player for Monaco. But it won’t be easy, and if it doesn’t happen, it’s no one’s fault but your own because you have that potential.”
If anyone should be thanking me, it’s Monaco. If I hadn’t seen him, Thierry would have found another club. It gave me credibility at the club, but the only credit I deserve is for being quicker than the other recruiters in signing him. Monaco reaped the rewards from it, but Thierry would have been fine.
NYRB: What’s your best memory of Thierry Henry?
AC: The image that always sticks with me with Thierry in the World Cup quarterfinal against Italy when he was 20 years old. He wasn’t on the list to take a penalty in the shootout. There were so many players on that list who begged off, and for Thierry, at 20 years old, without even being asked, to go up and take one of the penalties that helped France beat Italy. When I saw that… At that stage of his career, it wasn’t necessarily a given that he would have ice in his veins. But Thierry has always been like that. When you’re scouting kids, you have your analysis, but there’s always that quality of: How do you deal with stress? It’s difficult when a kid is 13, 14 or 15 years old – and older, too – to evaluate that. There are players who are amazing at training and they aren’t able to translate that into a game. Thierry always had that ability to play at his best at that level.
Catalano’s intuitions were spot on, as Henry went onto win the World Cup, European Championship and UEFA Champions League, while earning a number of other accolades.
Last Friday, MLS Insider debuted a tribute to Henry (see video below), highlighting the French legend’s wonderful career as seen through the eyes of teammates such as Tim Cahill and opponents including Landon Donovan. For New York, he was a finalist for the Most Valuable Player Award in 2012 and like he has in the other teams he played for, Henry has become one of his club’s all-time greats, scoring 40 goals and 27 assists in 91 regular season appearances in MLS. The three-time MLS All Star will look to add to his illustrious career this Sunday, as the Red Bulls can capture the Supporters’ Shield with a win against the Chicago Fire at Red Bull Arena.