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Well, at least “The Sun” didn’t go with “The Hand Of Frog” as their headline. This, however, was about the best thing that could be said for the media hysteria over Thierry Henry’s handball for France against Ireland last night. First of all, though, we may as well take a quick look at the incident itself. If we are to run with the viewpoint that there was some sort of conspiracy against the Irish going on in Paris last night, then we have to assume that Thierry Henry, the referee and the linesman were all in on it. The truth of the matter is that this wasn’t the case, so we have to look at how they contrived to get it so wrong.
Firstly, the match officials. At the time that the ball strikes Henry’s arm, there were four players directly in the referee’s line of sight. He should probably have been in a better position, but the fact that he didn’t see the offence (summed up by a gesticulation to protesting Irish players that he felt that the ball had struck the cirner of his shoulder and chest) means that, as far as he was concerned, there was no decision to make. The linesman for that half of the pitch was in a similar predicament, with play on the opposite side of the pitch to where he was located and players blocking his view. If the referee and the linesman both have their view obscured at the same time, they can hardly be expected to give a free-kick just because half a dozen Irish arms went up. If they had wanted to fix the match, they could have given the half-shout for a penalty that France had already had before the goal.
Next, onto Henry. Sometimes it feels as if people just don’t understand professional footballers. These are men that are bred like racehorses with one aim: to win. The first strike against Henry’s arm may have had a degree of accident about it, but the second certainly didn’t. The mindset of Thierry Henry at that precise moment is impossible to know, but it wouldn’t be out of the question that he guessed that, with the ball having struck his arm the once, he might as well try it on again. He might not have thought anything at all at that moment. Whatever may or may not have happened in that quarter of a second, his actions were not a million miles removed from what we see up and down the country on a weekly basis.
Nobody, however, could have expected the hysteria in the media that has followed it, with many members of the press seeming to collectively lose their minds this morning. In The Times, Tony Cascarino said, “Don’t think I’m ducking the question when I say that it would never have been an issue for me — because I wasn’t a cheat”. Richard Williams in The Guardian sounded like Brian Sewell chiding a modern artist in stating that “Henry may come from Les Ulis, a quartier difficile outside Paris, but he is a sophisticated man, and a much decorated one. A chevalier of the Legion d’Honneur should have done better – by his opponents, by himself, and by the game”.
The pick of the lot, however, was Henry Winter, who sounded like a jilted lover on Twitter, wailing, “Why Thierry? Why ruin your reputation for sportsmanship? Journalists are now running thru Stade de Fraud looking for you. Why did you cheat?”, managing in the process to sound like cross between an angry teacher and a spurned lover. Inadvertently, though, Winter and Williams may just have stumbled across a large part of the reason for the media’s spit-inflected rage over this incident. Henry was the aesthete’s footballer. Good looking, smarter than the average player and capable of moments of absolute genius on the pitch, he is the sort of player that we would, if we admit it to ourselves, all like to be.
Journalists in particular have gushed over him for years. The speed, grace and economy of his play. The articulacy. The hot girlfriend that wanders around his house in the Renault advert wearing an oversized shirt and possibly nothing else. Thierry Henry was the journalist’s representative on the pitch. They wouldn’t have believed him capable of such behaviour. In other words, in the process of their lionisation of him, they forgot that he is just a professional footballer. Just as corruptible as anybody else. Several writers drew a dividing line between Henry and Diego Maradona. Somehow or other, Richard Williams managed to equate that in comparison with Henry’s handball, Maradona’s was, “a street kid’s instinct, acclaimed by his compatriots as revenge for Antonio Rattín and the Malvinas”. Well, no, Richard. Maradona’s handball was cheating, just as Henry’s was.
Today, the clamour for a replay of the match has been growing and growing from both sides of the Irish Sea. Rematches are almost completely unheard of, but the FAI has already cited the replaying of the 2005 match between Bahrain and Uzbekistan as being precedent for this match to be replayed. However, what this request fails to take into account is that the referee in that particular match got a decision materially wrong (he awarded a free-kick rather than a retake after a player encroached at a penalty kick) rather than because match officials missed a call. The referee’s decision is final as far as FIFA are concerned, and that is that. Familiar talk has also resurfaced about the merits of video refereeing, but this also remains unlikely because the authorities continue to see referees as the ultimate authority in the game. Finally, talk of the FAI taking FIFA to court is a complete non-starter. It is against FIFA membership rules to take them to court – doing so would more likely than not see Ireland expelled from the organistation altogether.
So, there we go. Thierry Henry handled the ball and that decision may or may not have knocked Ireland out of the World Cup. He could have come clean but, hey, he’s a footballer. What he did is what they do if it gives them a chance of a result and it’s what they’ve been doing for years – for decades even beyond Diego Maradona. He could have apologised. He could even have refused to celebrate the goal, but the fact that he did neither is hardly a surprise, except to those in the media that had placed him upon a pedestal some years ago.
It’s also worth remembering that Ireland weren’t winning at the time that this happened and that they were still playing – albeit a relatively limp and feeble version of the brand – France in Paris. Not to mention that Robbie Keane’s two one-on-one misses and the poor performance that they put on at Croke Park in the First Leg left them playing extra time at the Stade de France in the first place. Ultimately, though, Ireland supporters know the limitations of their team and this may have heightened the sense of injustice that they felt last night. They could probably do without the British media telling them what they should think of Thierry Henry and how “cheated” they should feel, though.