With Belgium getting ready to take on France in the first semifinal of the FIFA World Cup 2018 in Russia, the focal point isn’t a member of either of the two teams despite the massive impact individuals from both sides have made. Hugo Lloris was sublime against Brazil, Raphael Varane scored the opening goal, N’Golo Kante has been stellar as always, Kylian Mbappe and his blazing pace and scoring touch has earned him comparison with a young Pele. On the other side, Belgium’s supremely talented side is blessed with the likes of Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku and sees versatility in Marouane Fellaini with Thibaut Courtois seeming hard to beat even with a questionable defence at times. But it is a member of the Belgium coaching staff who has made quite an impact in seeing the Red Devils up until here.
Thierry Henry, now assistant to Belgium coach Roberto Martinez, will be trying to help them reach the World Cup final for the first time in their history. In so doing, he will be denying France – for whom he scored a record 51 goals and won the trophy in 1998 – a shot at a second title. “It is true it is a little peculiar to see him with the Belgium team,” said Lloris. “I think his heart will be split, because before everything he is French. He has lived through great moments in the blue jersey. He scored the most goals, is second in terms of number of caps.”
“We know him, he has a lot of passion for football and he will be with the Belgians and will give everything to help his team,” he further added.
Lukaku’s surging runs down the right to leave Brazil wingbacks for death and creating space for others with runs into open spaces has been crucial for Belgium going forward. Against Japan, Lukaku made a strong run down the centre which created room on the right and then a dummy, in the 94th minute, allowed an unmarked Nacer Chadli to grab the winner. The Manchester United striker’s impact was even more visible against Brazil. He made one lung bursting run after another and made life difficult for Brazil with close touches and feeding into space for De Bruyne and Hazard. Clearly the long conversations with ‘Titi’ bearing fruit. “He helps me so much with everything in the game,” Lukaku had told the Players’ Tribune in a glowing assessment of his mentor. “My awareness, my skills, my shooting, my control in front of the goal, my actions, where I have to be on the field, scoring goals out of nowhere – that’s what big players do, don’t wait for the ball to come in front of you, you have to create the goal yourself.”
“Since we’ve been working closely together I think I’ve raised my game twice as much than what I thought I could do, and I owe him a lot, a lot in the last two years. I owe him a lot.”
Ever since Henry joined Belgium’s coaching staff in 2016, Henry and Lukaku often meet after Premier League games to discuss his performance. Henry, armed with videos, would show the 25-year-old how to make better runs and improve his movement. And who better to explain and narrate that than someone who made a career out of doing just that at Highbury. Growing up in Antwerp, Lukaku looked up to Henry as an idol. And their partnership now is proving fruitful on the pitch.
In the group stages, Lukaku played as a traditional No 9 scoring four goals – a brace each against Tunisia and Panama. Against Brazil, however, he switched roles and hugged the right touchline to bring back memories of his exploits for Everton under Martinez.
Henry isn’t the only former prolific Premier League striker that Hazard worked under and learned from. When at Chelsea, Lukaku would work alongside Drogba but the relationship and motivation was different. “When I was working with Drogba [at Chelsea] I used to compete with him. Didier was my idol, he taught me so much but in my mind I was competing because I wanted to play.”
“But with Thierry it’s different because he is my coach, we have debates about football, we talk about football. When we were kids, we couldn’t even afford to watch Thierry Henry on Match of the Day! Now I’m learning from him every day with the national team. I’m standing with the legend, in the flesh, and he’s telling me all about how to run into space like he used to do. Thierry might be the only guy in the world who watches more football than me. We debate everything. We’re sitting around and having debates about German second division football.”
Even as Lukaku and Henry plot France’s downfall, man on the other side of the pitch for Les Bleus, Olivier Giroud, would be eager to prove to Titi he chose the wrong side. “I’d had preferred him to be with us and to be giving his advice to me. He’s a living legend of French football and we have a lot of respect for him. I’m not jealous. There’s a lot of mutual respect. I don’t resent him. My job’s to be good on the pitch, to help my team. But I’d be proud to show Titi that he chose the wrong side!,” said the French forward in the run up to the game.
Remains to be seen whether Henry’s heart or head wins in this World Cup semi-final – France or Belgium.