The footballing world is talking about one man and one man only today. Step forward Thierry Henry, the “Thief of St Denis”.
That was term used by George Hamilton – commentator on Irish network television channel RTE – to describe the French striker in the immediate aftermath of the Republic of Ireland’s heartbreaking defeat in Paris last night.
William Gallas’ extra time goal – laid on by Henry following a clear handball – saw Ireland’s World Cup hopes stolen and their dreams shattered, despite dominating the game against the 2006 World Cup runners-up.
The final whistle signalled the start of a major post mortem with TV and radio phone-in shows full of criticism for Henry and his act of deception, and not just from supporters of the Irish team. A favourite of many football fans before that point, it felt as though Henry had let them down and tarnished his reputation for good.
The debate continues to rage today and will no doubt do so for some time to come. All parties have come in for criticism from some quarter: Henry, the match officials, FIFA, the Irish players for their profligacy – just who is to blame for Ireland’s exit?
Henry admitted that the ball hit his hand but justified his actions by saying “I am not the ref”. Listening to numerous professionals – both current and retired – the reaction of those within the game seems to be the same: Henry may have cheated but, if you can get away with it, you take the breaks that come your way.
The view of the Irish supporters would surely be different if the goal had been scored by Robbie Keane in similar circumstances at the other end. In fact, one of their own players, Sean St Ledger, admitted after the game that “if it had been one of our team, we’d probably have done the same.”
So does this mean that cheating is an acceptable part of the game, provided you get away with it? The term “cheating” itself has been avoided by many but if you look it up – “to act dishonestly so as to gain an advantage” – it’s hard to argue a case for the Frenchman.
Professional golfers and snooker players invariably admit to fouls that officials have not seen – it’s just part of the game – but the thought of a footballer doing the same sounds ridiculous.
Alas, it’s a sad indictment of the sport that notions of Henry ‘owning up’ to the offence have been laughed off, quite literally in the case of the player himself.
So with players’ transgressions reluctantly accepted, attention has since turned to the referee Martin Hansson and his assistants who should have spotted the incident.
Ireland boss Giovani Trapattoni has today suggested that Hansson was not up to the task of refereeing such a big game – a claim that lacks substance given that, up until the crucial decision, the Swedish official had performed excellently.
What’s more, if he had wished to favour France over Ireland deliberately to help a FIFA agenda – as has been suggested by some supporters – he had the perfect opportunity to do so when Nicolas Anelka went to ground looking for a penalty. The decision not to give the spot kick was not only the correct one, but an excellent one.
For the handball itself, in fairness to Hansson, his view could easily have been obstructed by Henry’s body and other players. Nevertheless, it’s hard to see how his assistant on the touchline failed to spot the infringement and it’s obvious why the replays of the incident are gut-wrenching for any Irish supporter.
But isn’t that just football? It’s not the first time a big decision has been wrong in a big game and it certainly won’t be the last but, although the mistake was an honest one, it need not have been such a crucial one.
If television replays were allowed in football then the goal could have been chalked off before the French had even finished their celebration. Henry’s duplicity would have been exposed, the goal disallowed and parents could look their kids in the eye and tell them that cheats never prosper.
All people want is the big decisions given correctly and to see that justice is done. It happens in rugby, cricket and tennis, so why not football?
That’s the big question for FIFA, who now must surely start listening to calls for a review of this rule. If any good – outside of France – is to come of this game then the introduction of replays in some form to prevent such injustices must surely be it.
This will be of little consolation to the Irish, who produced one of their finest performances to get within touching distance of South Africa. If the finishing of John O’Shea, Damien Duff or Robbie Keane had been as good as their build-up play their fans may be booking their flights already.
If they were to lose a tie they dominated by means of a penalty shootout then it would have been a bitter pill to swallow, but at least it would have been down to the kick of a ball or a goalkeeper’s save.
But to finish second in their group to world champions Italy and then overcome FIFA’s crooked play-off seedings to outplay the 2006 runners-up over two legs, only to lose the tie to a goal that should never had stood? Well that’s a blow that the Irish players, management and supporters did not deserve.
Next summer’s tournament will be worse off for the absence of Ireland and the green army who follow them, but this is a point unlikely to bother Messrs Blatter and Platini.
They will be in France watching the big names play and the money roll in as the Irish supporters watch from their living rooms and pubs back home wondering what might have been.
Football is an unjust game sometimes and, alas, cheats do sometimes prosper.
Dan Pope – Club Website editor
Have your say!
What did you think of the Henry incident? Who is to blame for the result? Should Henry or the French team face punishment? Is football a game of “win at all costs”? Or does this just happen at the top of the game?
Have your say in our comments section below.