By Patrick Vignal
TUNIS (Reuters) - France's captain and most prolific scorer Thierry Henry faces the once inconceivable prospect of being a substitute at the World Cup for the country he has graced for over a decade.
The only player in the squad who was part of the team's 1998 World Cup triumph, the 32-year-old appears set to lose his place up front in coach Raymond Domenech's first team to Nicolas Anelka and the captain's arm-band to left back Patrice Evra.
Prior to naming his squad for the June 11-July 11 finals in South Africa, Domenech endorsed Henry as a trusted 'great player', yet has started him on the bench for France's two World Cup warm-ups against Costa Rica and Tunisia.
Henry, despite boasting a record 51 goals in 120 appearances and standing on the verge of becoming the first France player to take part in four World Cups, appears to be paying the price after suffering a series of setbacks.
Pushed on the fringes at Barcelona where he rarely started a game this year, Henry has also been marked by the controversy sparked by his handball in a playoff win over Ireland last November.
Henry, until that day never considered a cheat, handled the ball in the build-up to the decisive goal that sent France through to the finals, sparking one of the biggest outcries in the competition's history.
"I am lucky to play with Titi at club level and it's true that the last few months have been complicated for him," defender Eric Abidal, Henry's team mate at Barca, told reporters at France's training camp in Tunisia.
"He's been thinking about the World Cup and getting ready for it, hoping it would give him a breath of fresh air. He's a leading player in our group and we know we can count on him."
Henry has not complained after being left out of the starting line-up twice, even congratulating Evra after he wore the armband in a 2-1 win over Costa Rica last week, but has also been careful to avoid the media.
"The coach has made choices that can be difficult to accept but Titi is still ready to help out," Abidal said of Henry's uncomfortable situation.
Beloved of French fans for lifting the team out of tight spots and fondly remembered at Arsenal where he scored 226 goals during his eight-year spell at the London club, Henry could still make an impact at the World Cup.
For now, he faces the task of recapturing his scoring instinct from back-stage, instead of being the front-man.
"I don't see any first-choice players or substitutes," Domenech said of his decision to leave Henry on the bench.
(Editing by Ian Ransom)