Thierry Henry was coming home, where his professional football adventure started, the place with the highest number of millionaires and billionaires, and per capita in the world.
The city state of Monaco, a small strip of land on the shores of the Mediterranean, with a land border of just 5,47km, a width, which at its widest is just 1,7km, a coastline of merely 3,83km and — with an average 19 000 inhabitants every square kilometre – the most densely populated area in the world.
But then who cares about that when 30 percent of those inhabitants are millionaires and billionaires – Greek ship-owners, oil barons from the Middle East, British and German Formula One drivers and tennis greats like Bjorn Borg, Novak Djokovic and Caroline Wozniacki.
When the unemployment rate is only two percent, the lowest poverty rate in the world, where US$60 000 will only buy you a square metre of real estate.
For Thierry, the French golden boy who started his professional career there in 1994, embarking on a spiritual journey that would take him to Juventus, Arsenal and Barcelona, becoming his country’s record goal-scorer and Arsenal’s greatest goal-scorer, a return to Monaco as coach was the ultimate fairytale reunion.
A romance made in heaven, scripted by angels, anointed by all the prophets, what the football gods ordered when they painted the beautiful side of this game, and Monaco even produced a video with the hashtag #He’sComingHome.
Thierry had distinguished himself as an authoritative pundit on Sky Sports, where he was the best paid voice on television among those who analyse the game, getting a cool US$6 million every year, and a survey by a British newspaper showed he was one of the top five pundits.
Surely, after serving an apprenticeship as the assistant coach of the Belgium team that finished third at the 2018 World Cup, Thierry appeared ready to make his mark as a head coach and when Monaco came knocking, he just could not say no to his old team.
But, just three months into the job, Thierry was gone.
Sacked under the weight of humiliating results – just five wins in 20 matches in all competitions, just two victories in 12 league matches, four draws, 15 goals for his team, 36 goals conceded, and being dumped out of the French Cup by a Division Two side.
He lasted just 104 days.
The Monaco players complained privately the coach appeared unsure of what he really wanted out of them, and he didn’t seem to know which formation suited his men, starting with a 4-2-3-1, then shifting to three at the back and a five-man midfield.
Then there was the 4-3-2-1 and a straight 4-3-3, but nothing seemed to work.
And by the time his team took on Strasbourg in the penultimate match before he was sacked, frustration had caught up with him and, after a 1-5 hammering, he lost his cool and insulted an opposition player by calling his grandmother a “whore”.
The golden boy, who has a statue outside the Emirates in honour of his service to Arsenal, who charmed millions with his knowledge of the game as he analysed it from the comfort of the Sky Sports studios in London, had suffered the ultimate humiliation from a game, which until now, had given him everything.
THIERRY IS GONE, BUT AMONG THE PUNDITS WHO FAILED, HE ISN’T WALKING ALONE
Thierry isn’t the only influential Sky Sports pundit, who despite showing considerable expertise of the game as an analyst, found the going tough when he was thrust into the hot seat to guide a football club.
Gary Neville, who many believe is the best pundit on Sky Sports and who came out tops in that survey by the Daily Mirror, was another one who turned out to be a complete flop when he ventured into the dugout at Valencia in Spain.
He didn’t win a game until the 10th match in the league, never guided them to a clean sheet in his entire time in La Liga, and by the time he was sacked, Valencia were only just six points above relegation and in danger of going down for the first time since 1986.
Neville took charge of 28 games, won only 10 matches, drew seven and lost 11, they scored 39 goals and conceded 38, but that tells just half the story.
A 0-7 humiliation by Barcelona at the Nou Camp in a Copa del Rey first leg, semi-final tie exposed all his shortcomings.
Alan Shearer, the greatest English goal-scorer of his time, has also made a name for himself as a fine pundit both on BBC and Sky Sports.
But, after being handed the role to coach his hometown team Newcastle in 2009, he came terribly short and the Magpies were relegated under his watch.
In the eight matches he took charge, his team won only once, drew twice and lost five and they scored just four goals, a pathetic return for someone seen as a specialist in getting goals.
THEY ARE ALL GANGING UP ON KHAMA NOW
From their SuperSport studio on Saturday, Mark Gleeson and William Shongwe, a former international goalkeeper, questioned the value Khama Billiat had imposed on the 116th Soweto Derby.
Even the penalty he won, which Chiefs converted for their goal, was described by the two commentators as a doggy piece of gamesmanship in which Billiat had conned the referee.
And Gleeson and Shongwe were not the only ones who saw the apparent flaws in Billiat’s display and his diminished value that day, where the Zimbabwean appeared an imitation of the little genius who had become a terror to defenders in Supa Diski.
Twitter, that unforgiving terrain, was also brutal in its assessment of Billiat.
Understandably, it’s not easy being Khama Billiat.
And, when you cross the floor from Sundowns to Chiefs, it transforms you into an object of hate for those who feel betrayed by your decision.
Those who now consider you a latter-day Judas Iscariot, seduced by money to dump them, who accuse you of taking their patronage for a ride.
The people, who in today’s world of faceless social media critics, can even pretend to be fans of your new team when they dish out all that abuse.
And, then, of course, there are those who genuinely never accepted the reality that a boy who arrived on their shores as just another poor footballer from a poor neighbourhood in Harare could become the highest-paid man in Supa Diski.
Admittedly, Khama has not exploded the way many expected he would when he arrived at the Amakhosi seven months ago.
His touch has betrayed and deserted him, his confidence appears drained and his sparkle appears to have faded.
But, the worst we can do is to suggest he is finished, to spread the narrative his best days are behind him, to even contemplate we are seeing the beginning of the end of Khamaldinho.
To swallow the propaganda that his recent struggles are just the first signs of a downhill slide into oblivion, the first signs of the inevitable plunge from greatness back to the ordinary world of us mere mortals.
I resist that flawed argument because I have heard it before, from heavyweight television and newspaper pundits, and – as it turned out – all of it was just trash talk with their attempts to write the epitaph on the tombstones of the careers of many footballers turning out to be premature.
After all, they said the same of Paul Pogba as recent as December last year, with the Frenchman even being labelled as the “Flop of the Year,” by BT pundit Robbie Savage, a former footballer himself.
“Paul Pogba – A World Cup winner with France, for sure, and congratulations to him for that, but the world’s best players don’t live on past glories,’’ Savage said.
And he wasn’t the only pundit who argued Pogba was finished, a terrible investment by Manchester United, a man who wasn’t half as good as he believed.
That his obvious brilliance was being hampered by the Stone Age tactics which Jose Mourinho preferred appeared to escape these pundits.
Now, that the same Pogba has been shining brightly under Ole, has suddenly muted the venom which all these armchair critics have been pouring in his direction.
FOOTBALL, IN ITS SIMPLICITY LIES THE VERY HEART OF ITS COMPLEXITY
And, as has been shown by Thierry, Gary Neville and Shearer – analysing this game in a studio is very easy, but when it comes to what transpires on the field, it is a different animal.
It’s easy to criticise, to target an individual footballer, and the high-profile ones usually are the easy prey.
And, it’s even worse when they are black, from poor backgrounds, they make a lot of money and they live in the fast lanes of the public eye.
Yes, Khama can do better, no doubt about that, and can play far better than he is doing now.
But I am not desperate to give up on him, to be swayed by the armchair analysts to doubt his quality because I am a firm believer that form is temporary and class is permanent.
If this game was easy, Thierry would have been fighting for the championship with Monaco, Gary Neville would probably be still at Valencia and Shearer would possibly be managing one of the EPL’s Big Six clubs.
You just have to love this game, intoxicatingly beautiful and relentlessly brutal at the same time, and in its simplicity lies the very heart of its complexity.
Never say never in this game, never rush to judge because it can bite back, BBC’s Alan Hansen said Manchester United would never win anything with the kids of ’92, but we now all know what happened with those boys.
Ben Kouffie said we would never go to the AFCON finals, even if we hired a coach from the moon, but here we are now, about to go there for the fourth time.
And one freezing January night at Anfield, Liverpool fans displayed a giant banner which read, “Come Back and Sing Ooh Aah Cantona When You’ve Won 18 Titles,” during a match against United.
That was in 1994 – United just had added an eighth title, their first in 26 years, and Liverpool had 18 titles.
Twenty five years later, Liverpool still have their 18 and United now have 20 championships, 13 of them coming in the era of the Premiership.
Never tempt fate, the old men kept telling me back in the days of my innocence in Chakari, and even now, as they start to write an epitaph on Khama’s football career, something just keeps telling me don’t join them.
And I won’t.