I never made the choice to become an Arsenal fan. I simply became an Arsenal fan, because my dad is an Arsenal fan, and his dad was an Arsenal fan. The second football shirt that I ever owned was a 2002/03 Arsenal home shirt, given to me for Christmas by my aunt. That I inherited my dad's side is no surprise, given that I also inherited his accent, creating a long-standing tradition that can me switch from an American accent to an English-sounding one mid-sentence, provided something to do with football or England became relevant. We didn't have pay per view in the early 2000s, though, so seeing Arsenal was a rarity. The earliest match I can remember was in the 2002-03 season; I remember almost nothing aside from four things: Rami Shaaban was on the substitutes bench, and when I asked my dad about Arsenal, he told me that "Thierry Henry is the best player." The other two things that I remember is that Henry scored and Arsenal won.
There may have been a match or two in 2003-04; in 2004-05, while in Florence, I saw the second leg of the tie with Bayern Munich, where a Thierry Henry goal was not enough to rescue a 3-1 first leg loss. In 2005-06, though, Arsenal went to the Champions League final, and I was able to see all of it, mostly tape-recorded, on ESPN.
By then, I knew more about Arsenal. I knew about Arsène Wenger, I knew about Robert Pirès and Dennis Bergkamp, and about Kolo Toure. And I of course knew about Thierry Henry. I knew about Thierry Henry because my dad told me he was good in 2002, and when you're 8, your dad isn't wrong. Instead of Thierry Henry, I had a different favourite player; a younger midfielder, who scored in the home leg with Juventus, and that's all that we need to mention of him now. Thierry didn't have to be my favourite player because I already knew that he was just way too good; way too good for my 12-year old self to ever pretend to be him.
Thierry Henry was not part of my childhood in the way he was for other Arsenal fans of a similar age. By the time I started watching Arsenal frequently, in 2007-08, and weekly, in 2008-09, Henry had left for Barcelona. Yet Henry, like for so many others, was still part of my formative Arsenal experience, if in a more retrospective way. I knew Thierry Henry was good because my dad told me he was good; but in every single Arsenal game I watched until the second leg of the Real Madrid tie (and they weren't many, but still), Henry scored.
And it wasn't just scoring: it was scoring ridiculously good goals. His goal against Bayern Munich in 2005, gets overlooked because Arsenal went out of the Champions League, but it's an utterly brilliant goal. He takes the ball out of the air, ahead of Lucio no less, with his right foot, and with a second touch, shoots with his left into the far right corner, past an outstretched Oliver Kahn.
And this was the brilliance of Thierry Henry. Few have confirmed brilliance in the way he did at Arsenal, especially between 2001 and 2006: 5 seasons, 242 games, 166 goals, 75 assists--effectively contributing a goal a game--three FA Cups, two Premier Leagues, and countless individual awards. In retrospect, it looks even better: the way he single-handedly dragged Arsenal through the round of 16 tie against Real Madrid, despite the abject domestic form and youthfulness of the side. In that way, Henry was not so much a brilliant football player, but a superhero. I grew to love Thierry Henry after he left the club because of this confirmed brilliance: with additional context, it took on a form of otherworldliness; how could you not love Thierry, even if you missed most of his reign over the Premier League?
Finally, there is the comeback. Fairy tales, quite frankly, rarely happen in professional sports. Thierry Henry coming back to Arsenal: wonderful story, lovely to see him back, hope he scores. But Thierry Henry scored about 10 minutes after coming on and ran around like a young kid who scored the winning goal for his boyhood club. All of this happened because he was Thierry Henry; without the aura around him, without the perfection and sense of otherworldliness, he wouldn't be Thierry Henry. And that is what Thierry Henry gave us, whether we realised it when he was playing, or between the two spells. Thierry was our own superhero, and more than any other player, he allowed us to dream of footballing perfection.