Eire of their ways

By the time France’s William Gallas had nodded the ball into the net in extra-time in the second leg of the World Cup play-off against the Republic of Ireland, effectively securing his country’s passage to South Africa next summer, the debate surrounding the goal had already begun raging. Just moments earlier, the French captain Thierry Henry had used his arm twice in the build-up: first, to prevent Florent Malouda’s deep free-kick from exiting; then, to bring the ball under control, before tapping it with his foot into the path of Gallas for the defender to score with his head from two yards. As French players celebrated, the Irish protested vehemently, but in vain: neither Swedish referee Martin Hansson nor his two assistants had seen the incident and the goal stood. Having won 1-0 in the first leg in Dublin, a 1-1 draw in Paris was enough for France to qualify for the 2010 tournament with an aggregate score of 2-1. For Ireland, it was a cruel defeat which generated immediate sympathy throughout the football world.

Fans in the Stade de France and those watching around the globe instantly recognised it as a sporting controversy which would live long in the memory — a “Maradona moment”, as the BBC pundit and former Ireland international Mark Lawrenson put it, drawing an obvious comparison with the infamous “Hand of God” incident. Though while undoubtedly the most gifted player of his generation, Diego Maradona’s fisted goal in the 1986 World Cup quarter-final against England was generally seen as a piece of plucky opportunism appropriate for a man who, whether in the slums of Buenos Aires or on the football field, had fought adversity his whole life. Thierry Henry may have grown up in a difficult Parisian suburb but his image, especially in England, is one of the cultured Frenchman: a gifted purveyor of the “champagne football” championed by Arsène Wenger’s Arsenal, where he was a key player before his transfer to Barcelona in 2007. How could such an elegant professional stoop to commit such a petty crime?

It seems sports commentators and journalists often forget that when competing on grass all footballers, regardless of talent or background or moral composition, usually only have one thing on their minds. Writing in The Times, former Ireland international Tony Cascarino seemed confused that someone who “speaks so eloquently” could also be “insincere, a faker, someone who cares only about himself,” clearly refusing to believe there could be any overlap between articulacy and immorality.

Henry immediately confessed to his offence but seemed reluctant to take sole blame for the outcome. “Yes, there was a handball,” he told reporters after the game. “But I am not the referee. He did not whistle and I continued to play.” He later released a statement in which he further attempted to justify his actions. “It was an instinctive reaction to a ball that was coming extremely fast in a crowded penalty area. As a footballer you do not have the luxury of the television to slow the pace of the ball down to be able to make a conscious decision.”

France’s reaction to the incident and its effect on the game’s outcome was one of extreme discomfort, local newspaper Le Parisien even suggesting that Henry’s handball was “a decisive contribution to the recurring theme: being French is being ashamed of one’s national team.” Henry’s former Arsenal and France teammate Emmanuel Petit described a feeling of embarrassment among the French public. “We didn’t want to qualify in controversial circumstances — the handball will not send out a good message.” A staunch opposer of France’s national team coach Raymond Domenech, World Cup-winning full-back Bixente Lizarazu stated “It was not something to be proud of. I’m not going to party.” Domenech himself appeared the only person involved not to recognise the gravity of the situation. “We needed to qualify and we did that,” he said. “Victories like this one, at the end of a difficult campaign, give this side heart and soul.” Many French fans consider Domenech fortunate to still be employed by the FFF (Féderation de Football Français) following a disastrous early exit at Euro 2008 and a poor qualifying campaign for World Cup 2010.

Robbie Keane, Ireland’s captain and goalscorer on the night hinted at favouritism towards France among Europe’s footballing authorities. “They’re all probably clapping hands, [UEFA President Michel] Platini sitting up there on the phone to [FIFA President] Sepp Blatter, probably texting each other, delighted with the result.”

It was an outburst borne of anger and frustration, but one which caught the ire of the other Keane, Roy, the outspoken and hot-tempered former Irish captain, who saved his criticism for the Irish Football Association. “They can complain all they want but France are going to the World Cup — get over it,” he said. “I’d be more annoyed with my defenders and my goalkeeper than Thierry Henry. Ireland had their chances in the two games, and they never took them — it’s the usual reaction.” Keane also pointed out the fact that controversial decisions had gone in Ireland’s favour during the qualifying campaign, not least a generous penalty award against Georgia which helped them to a 2-1 win back in February: “I don’t remember the FAI after the game saying we should give them a replay.”

In 2002 Keane famously walked out on Ireland’s World Cup squad from its camp in Saipan, Japan, after a row with then-coach Mick McCarthy regarding what he felt were sub-standard training facilities. He has since then continued to criticise the FAI for its disorganization, hypocrisy, and tendency to act victimised. Certainly, the exaggerated actions taken by the FAI following the incident hardly enhanced their reputation, and any sympathy felt towards Ireland was soon undone by its own protests to FIFA. The FAI’s poorly conceived suggestions as to how this footballing injustice might be corrected ranged from naive to ludicrous; acts of desperation rather than any sporting logic.

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In the aftermath of the incident, observers on both sides felt the match should be replayed. In an attempt to perhaps absolve himself from culpability, even Henry suggested it would be the “fairest solution.” But while the Irish entertained faint hopes that FIFA could still grant them a second chance at qualification, French players’ choice to side with the wounded party was deeply invested in the knowledge that such a decision had virtually no precedent in international football.

As was expected, the FAI filed a formal complaint with FIFA demanding a replay. Irish Taoiseach Brian Cowen and Minister for Justice Dermot Ahern also called upon soccer’s governing body to act on the grounds of fair play. Cowen went so far as to raise the issue with Nicolas Sarkozy at an EU summit in Brussels on November 19, a move which was handled with sympathy and diplomacy by the French President, but seen as inappropriate by the French Prime Minister François Fillon, who stated that the “Irish government should not interfere in footballing decisions.”

FIFA’s inevitable response was to reject the FAI’s request on November 20th, six days after the match, in a statement which referred to the Laws of the Game, in which “decisions are taken by the referee and these decisions are final.” The FAI expressed “deep disappointment” at FIFA’s decision, but continued their quest for justice a week later in Zurich, where an Irish delegation met with FIFA President Sepp Blatter to further discuss the matter. The FAI agreed that if the match could not be replayed, they should be allowed to enter the World Cup together with France, as an unprecedented 33rd entrant. This unexpected proposal had the backing of Bono but apparently drew laughter when Blatter brought up the suggestion at a Soccerex conference in Johannesburg.

The reasons why Ireland’s latest request would have been impossible are almost as blatantly obvious as the handball which provoked it. A World Cup requires years of logistical planning: an extra competing nation would require a complete redesign of the tournament’s structure, as fixtures and venues would have to be reconsidered. Secondly and far more serious is the effect such a decision would have on the very credibility of the competition. As Blatter pointed out, if Ireland were to be admitted, Costa Rica would have to be considered also, having been eliminated by an offside goal in their play-off with Uruguay. Which would inevitably lead to every other team who will miss out in South Africa pointing to refereeing decisions that had gone against them. The consequences of which would threaten to plunge FIFA’s system into chaos, jeopardising the entire tournament.

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Some have brushed aside Henry’s handball as part of the game: an avoidable but unfortunate occurrence which hurt all teams from time to time. But this leads to a greater and more complex argument: when does an incident in football go from “part of the game” to something worthy of greater investigation? On this issue, Blatter claims “the highest crime in football is touching the ball with your hands.” But surely a foul is a foul, however committed, whether pre-calculated or instinctive. The perpetrator of a particularly violent or cynical challenge can be punished with a yellow or red card, but the opposing team is only ever awarded a free-kick (or penalty kick should the incident take place inside the box), irrespective of the nature of the offence. It has been pointed out that two French players were in offside positions as Malouda struck his free-kick. Had France scored a goal which should have been ruled “merely” offside, would Ireland have been so insistent in their protests to FIFA? The FAI’s suggestion that Henry’s handball was somehow a worse crime than any other foul committed during the match is purely mistaken — it only seemed that way because his was so blatant and directly resulted in a goal.

On a similar note, following a FIFA EGM it was announced that the governing body’s disciplinary committee would open an investigation into the Henry’s handball, with the possibility of a one-match suspension of the player taking effect at the start of the World Cup in June. This decision came after Blatter had told Henry the incident was not his fault. While some claim FIFA have earned back some credibility in singling out Henry, had his handball been spotted by the referee, it would have most likely resulted in nothing more than a free-kick to Ireland and a booking for the culprit. The French captain was criticised for celebrating the goal and said the emotion of the moment had prevented him informing the referee of his handball. Some also took offence to Henry’s deliberate decision to sit with Irish defender Richard Dunne after the final whistle in an act of solidarity, rather than celebrate victory with his teammates (“If I’d have been Irish, he wouldn’t have lasted three seconds,” said former French international Eric Cantona).

Richard Williams, chief sports writer at The Guardian, saw it as “the perfect stage for an act of unselfishness, of honesty, of genuine sportsmanship”, bemoaning Henry for not taking “the opportunity to neutralise the effect of his reflexes.” But surely it is unfair to have expected the player to make such a sportsmanlike decision, or for him now to be made an example of by FIFA for an act which is commonplace. After all, what footballer would have acted differently? Even those involved with Ireland agree the blame must not lie ultimately with the Barcelona forward. “If it was down the other end and it was going out of play, I would have chanced my arm,” said Irish winger Damien Duff. “You can’t blame him — he’s a clever player.” Giovanni Trapattoni, Ireland’s veteran Italian coach — a man not unused to being on the losing end of a World Cup controversy — admitted, “It wasn’t up to Henry to say “I touched it with my hand.””

Their knee-jerk treatment of Henry suggests FIFA are still uncertain as to how best handle the situation, while Blatter’s indecision and vague comments have done little to enhance his reputation as a man with little interest in the good of running the game. The man former Irish star Liam Brady described as a “loose cannon” and an “embarrassment to FIFA” this week opined that referee Hansson “should have taken the time to reflect rather than immediately awarding the goal.” Blatter neglected to offer a suggestion as to exactly how much time would have been appropriate, but his refusal to fully blame either Henry or the referee is telling.

Hansson himself seemed happy to avoid taking full responsibility. Though FIFA rules prevent him from discussing the game until the investigation has concluded, Hansson told Swedish press he will “ride this storm,” but that the handball was neither his nor his assistants’ fault. He explained that a graphic printed in The Times, which demonstrates how three Irish players were blocking his view at the vital moment “clears the whole refereeing team in this incident.”

The natural consequence of the Henry affair has been to further strengthen the argument for the introduction of video evidence being available to officials should a referee fail to witness a contentious incident like the handball in Paris. Blatter has consistently opposed the use of technology in football, promising to maintain “the human face of football.” A more feasible alternative in the meantime could be Additional Assistant Referees (AARs), currently under trial in the Europa League, although FIFA has stated that no changes would be introduced in time for next year’s World Cup. In the meantime, Blatter has mentioned the possibility of awarding the FAI what he referred to as “moral compensation” in the form of a special fair play prize, an offer Dunne described as “taking the piss.”

Ireland’s grievance is understandable, but they are not deserving of special treatment. Furthermore, why would they want it? In requesting FIFA bend the rules in their favour they are no less guilty than Henry. They are not the first team to fall victim to a referee’s mistake with plenty at stake, and until FIFA introduces measures to address the problem, will definitely not be the last. But as Thierry Henry tried to explain, sometimes, in the heat of competition, passion and the desire to win can get the better of good judgment and common sense. Take those elements out of football and what are we left with?

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