Thierry Henry, the World Cup thief

November 25, 2009, 1:31 PM

A tidal wave of public anger swept across Ireland last Wednesday when Thierry Henry cheated us out of a possible place at the World Cup.

Then last weekend there was a real deluge when Ireland was hit by a huge storm that dumped so much rain on us half the country seemed to be under water. It never rains but it pours.

The flooding caused by the rain was unprecedented. Vast areas of farmland were submerged, roads were impassable, towns were knee deep in water.

The worst hit was Cork City, where the flood waters contaminated a water treatment plant and left half the city with no drinking water. Pictures of parts of Cork along the river looked like New Orleans after Katrina.

In some low lying areas in Ireland, especially in the Shannon basin, we have flooding every few years, with a few dozen homes affected. But this was on a different scale, right across the south and west of the country. It was the worst flooding in living memory, with streets turned into rivers and hundreds of houses and shops under two or three feet of water.

Already there are demands for an investigation into our inadequate flood water management. Certainly the ESB (the electricity company) did not help by releasing huge quantities of water from overloaded dams a few miles up from Cork.

But the truth is that this was a once in a century event, a freak act of nature leading to flooding that could not have been prevented without spending billions. And we don't have billions to blow on guarding against something that may not happen again for a century, even if global warming is making our winters wetter.

So people here are mopping up and getting on with it. There's no one to blame except the Great Rainmaker himself, so there's no point in getting angry.

But Thierry the Thief is a different matter.

Even as people were cleaning up after the flood, Thierry the Thief was still being talked about. In fact it's all people here have talked about since his handling of the ball last Wednesday night knocked us out of the World Cup. It led to a national outpouring of rage and scorn that surpasses anything I've seen in years.

There are various reasons for this. Part of it is our disappointment at missing the World Cup. The bigger part of it is the blatant injustice involved.

I had been at the previous game in Croke Park with my soccer mad 16-year-old son, and Ireland had put in a performance that was disappointing. But last Wednesday in the return game in Paris, the Irish boys played out of their skins, humiliated the mighty French team with all its stars and deserved to win.

We had a real chance of pulling it off when Thierry Henry handled the ball, not once but twice, in a goal mouth flurry that ended in the score that put us out. It was so blatant that it was beyond doubt.

The first time the ball hit his arm it just might have been accidental. The second time was clearly deliberate, as he cupped the ball with his hand to stop it going out of play.

Unless you have been on the moon for the past week, you will have seen it on TV. You will have seen Henry looking down and deliberately catching the ball with his hand to keep it in play. And you will have seen the desperate pleas from the Irish players to the referee.

The shock was all the greater because it was Thierry Henry, football's Mr. Clean, one of the ambassadors for soccer's Fair Play campaign. Later he tried to undo some of the damage by admitting that he had handled the ball, although he claims it was instinctive, rather than deliberate.

Well yes, Thierry, no one thinks that you planned to do it, but even allowing for the fact that it happened in a split second and not in slow motion, the way you looked down and cupped the ball was a clear giveaway. It was done deliberately.

Henry was aware immediately that he had cheated and that the goal should have been disallowed. But instead of rushing over to the referee to tell him what had happened, he shuffled off to celebrate with his teammates, even if he did look guilty and embarrassed.

Even worse was his behavior after the game when he sidled over to where a devastated Richard Dunne had collapsed on the grass and sat down beside him to offer consolation. Henry admitted to Dunne that he had handled the ball.

But it was too late. Just as Henry's subsequent statement in favor of a replay of the game was too late, coming after soccer’s governing body FIFA had already ruled that out.

There was more than a suspicion that what was really going on then was that Thierry the Thief was beginning to realize that he had a major problem on his hands (particularly his left hand). The Ireland-France game had been the biggest soccer match on global TV that night and had been watched by a few hundred million people, all of whom had seen Henry cheat.

Soon Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Brian Cowen and the French Prime Minister Nicolas Sarkozy were involved. The French minister for sport admitted that it was a shameful way for France to qualify. A national opinion poll in France showed that 80% of French people were unhappy with what had happened and thought the game should be played again.

So Thierry the Thief was deep in the merde. Mr. Clean was starting to look as dirty as a lot of other people in soccer.

And as well as the hundreds of million of TV viewers who had seen what he did, there were the people in Adidas and Gillette who had been watching as well. The people who pay him millions because he is Mr. Clean. No wonder he started calling for a replay!

The FAI's response (the organization that runs soccer in Ireland) concentrated on the damage that had been done to "the integrity of the game" before a worldwide audience. The scale of what had happened was different, the FAI said, and required a response from FIFA.

This was certainly true. We are all familiar with the diving and handballs that can be seen now and then in soccer games in professional leagues.

Blatant examples are always punished. But very often there is an element of doubt and referees don't always get it right and everyone accepts that.

But the Henry incident was different. It was a clear and blatant example of a handball. And it happened not in a league but in a vital international match in which a place at the World Cup was at stake.

To make it even more contentious, it allowed a big country like France to rob a small country like Ireland of something that meant so much to the whole of Ireland. And it did so after a heroic display of effort and courage by the Irish team.

In that sense, the FAI's view that this was on a different scale was correct. Goliath had stomped on David. FIFA, already a suspect organization, was again exposed as caring little about the smaller nations.

Even worse was the fundamental question being asked in many Irish homes that night by kids who had been sitting there in their Irish shirts watching the game on TV. How could this be allowed? How could somebody cheat like that and get away with it?

How could Ireland be put out of the World Cup like that? It was unfair!

Like a lot of dads all over Ireland that night, I struggled to find an answer. The thing is, there isn't an answer, other than that soccer is a beautiful game but a rotten sport.

FIFA's response that the referee's decision must stand shows that the rules are just as much in need of urgent reform as FIFA itself. The truth is that FIFA wants the big nations at the World Cup and does not care if little nations have to be trampled on to make this happen.

Here's one suggestion -- make video refereeing with instant replay a part of all World Cup games. FIFA says it is against the introduction of this (even though it is common in so many other sports) because small countries could not afford it. The answer is that the technology can be provided, at least for World Cup qualifier matches.

And if FIFA won't go that far, here's another suggestion -- have the TV coverage of all World Cup qualifier games reviewed by a FIFA committee the day after they are played and in the cases like Henry the Hand ban the player from the World Cup finals.

If that had been in place last Wednesday, there is no way Thierry the Thief would have cupped the ball the way he did.

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