Monday, November 23, 2009

Luck Of The Irish


Almost a week after the event, Thierry Henry’s wandering hands are still the talk of football. As a reminder to all those who have been in the jungle for the last few days, Henry handled the ball, not once, but twice, as he set up William Gallas’s equalising goal in France’s World Cup play-off against Ireland (sorry, “plucky” Ireland), effectively securing qualification for the French (sorry, “filthy, cheating” French).

Once the football match was over, the blame game began in earnest with most players pointing the finger at the hapless referee, Martin Hansson from Sweden, who was clearly unsighted by the players standing between him and the “main de dieu”. Sounding horribly like the appalling Jamie Redknapp after Chelsea’s Champions League semi-final defeat to Barcelona, the otherwise dignified Irish manager, Giovanni Trapattoni, moaned, “For this game we needed a strong referee. What criteria do they (FIFA) use to select referees?”, presumably referring to the match official’s Scandinavian roots. Funnily enough, up to that point, the Irish fans were praising Hansson for refusing to be influenced by the Parisian crowd, as he first chalked off a goal by Sydney Govou for offside and then denied a very strong penalty claim when goalkeeper Shay Given upended Nicolas Anelka.

"Fall at your feet"

Ireland’s captain Robbie Keane went a stage further, taking time out from missing open goals and berating the referee to point an accusing finger at the world’s football authorities, muttering darkly about how FIFA President Sepp Blatter and UEFA President Michel Platini would be delighted at the outcome, particularly as Platini is French. Of course, Robbie failed to mention that he had been guilty of a similar offence to Henry in the first half. Even more hilariously, Irish winger Damien Duff talked of a conspiracy between Platini, the French Football Federation and German sportswear giant Adidas, forgetting that he himself is paid £100,000 a year to wear football boots made by … Adidas.

Messrs Keane and Duff were also nowhere near as loquacious about the enormously easy chances that they inexplicably missed when they were both through one-on-one with the keeper. Is that also part of the conspiracy? Or were these just simple mistakes? Even though they are very experienced international footballers, they are allowed to make such an error, while the referee should be absolutely perfect. Life is indeed unfair.

A far more legitimate complaint is FIFA’s decision to seed the play-offs, which blatantly loaded the dice in favour of the so-called big nations, such as France. Actually, even here, it could be argued that seeding makes sense. Given that the qualifying tournament and the World Cup itself are both seeded, why would the stage in between, namely the play-offs, not be seeded? The only issue is the timing of the announcement, which came suspiciously late in the day.

"When Irish eyes were not smiling"

The story becomes more surreal with the involvement of the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) and even the Irish government, but it’s clearly very convenient for them to attach themselves to such a cause celèbre. The FAI is in desperate need of funds, which the World Cup would have helped replenish, but most of all is keen to find excuses for another qualification failure. In fact, since the glory days of Jack Charlton and even Mick McCarthy, Ireland have not reached a major tournament since 2002. The Irish government made the country look even more foolish with its absurd request for a replay. What a great idea – let’s fire up the people about a football match and hope that this will distract them from the government’s totally inept management of the country’s economy, which has seen the Celtic Tiger slink off with its tail between its legs.

The former Irish captain and professional hard man, Roy Keane, spoke with a great deal of sense, when he said that Ireland did not deserve to reach the World Cup. Reviving memories of his playing days, when he was noted for his ability to stick the boot in, he laid the blame on Ireland’s defence, rather than Henry, “I'd focus on why they didn't clear it. I'd be more annoyed with my defenders and my goalkeeper than Thierry Henry. How can you let the ball bounce in your six-yard box? How can you let Thierry Henry get goal-side of you?” Actually, I think that anyone who noticed Paul McShane’s arrival as a late substitute could probably answer that. This is a man who can’t even get into the Hull team, for heaven’s sake.

"Keane - slightly harder than the band of the same name"

Keano also questioned the honesty of the Irish, as he pointed out that controversial decisions had also gone Ireland’s way in the qualification campaign, not least a harsh penalty award, which helped them secure a 2-1 win against Georgia. Replays showed that Robbie Keane was offside and handled the ball in the lead-up to this palpably incorrect verdict. Keane (the old midfield bruiser, not the woeful striker) described it as one of the worst decisions he had ever seen, making the point that he did not “remember the FAI after the game saying we should give them a replay”. He also dismissed the FAI’s call for “honesty and integrity”, specifically calling out chief executive John Delaney, he of the Alan Partridge haircut, for not supporting him during his infamous disagreement with Mick McCarthy at the 2002 World Cup in Japan.

Even though Ireland were undoubtedly hard done by, it is worth remembering that they would not have automatically qualified, even if the handball goal had been disallowed. Following their feeble loss to the French in Dublin, it has been conveniently forgotten that Ireland were at no stage ahead in the tie. Given their inability to convert straightforward chances in Paris, there was no guarantee that Ireland would have gone on to win the game. Apart from the amazing misses by the profligate Robbie Keane and Damien Duff, John O’Shea and Kevin Doyle were equally wasteful. The team was also clearly tiring in extra-time, which is not particularly surprising, given the effort they had put in to their energy-sapping pressing game during normal time. If there had been no more goals, qualification would have depended on a penalty shoot-out, which Ireland were far from certain of winning.

"John Delaney a.k.a. Alan Partridge"

Nevertheless, there’s no doubt that France were there for the taking. In spite of all their experience, the players’ nerves were obvious, probably because they are managed by Raymond Domenech, a man who not only looks like he has escaped from Thunderbirds, but appears to also have the management skills of a puppet. On the other hand, although they left their shooting boots at home, the Irish undoubtedly put in a very good performance, executing the game plan of their wily, old manager, Giovanni Trapattoni, almost to perfection.

That might help explain the hysterical media over-reaction that followed the game, when the English press once again exhibited an astonishing amount of xenophobic, hypocritical, self-righteous indignation. In what looked like a collective leaving of their senses, the nation’s upstanding, oh-so honourable journalists decided to slaughter one player for something that is repeated in every single game of football. Of course, the great British public is no better. Egged on by the increasingly pompous, insufferable Sky Sports News, the viewers expressed their unhappiness with an overwhelming 71% demanding that the match be replayed in the “exclusive” poll. That’s telling them. I’m sure that FIFA will be swayed by the views of a handful of barely literate imbeciles who think that a Pavlovian response is probably a fancy name for a dessert that can be stuffed into their drooling mouths.

"Ref justice"

Leading the charge was the unbearable Tony Cascarino, who labeled Henry an “insincere cheat” in his column in The Times. That’s pretty rich coming from a man whose entire international career was based on a lie, because the Irish grandfather that allowed him to play for Ireland was not a blood relative. As he said in his autobiography, “I didn't qualify for Ireland. I was a fraud. A fake Irishman.” In the same book, he confessed to being unfaithful to his first wife, while he was later arrested for allegedly assaulting his estranged second wife. With enemies like these, who needs friends?

However, the worst culprit was Henry Winter in The Daily Telegraph. Sounding for all the world like a jilted lover, Winter compared Henry’s instinctive handball with the considered, systematic cheating of “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, a baseball player for the Chicago White Sox, who participated in a match fixing conspiracy in the 1919 World Series, later immortalised in the 1988 movie “Eight Men Out”. Get real. Not only is this a ridiculous comparison, but also it comes from a journalist who ghost wrote the autobiography of Steven Gerrard, well-known for his ongoing battle with the forces of gravity, and is a tiresome apologist for Michael Owen, the man who tumbled theatrically to earn a penalty for England against Argentina in the 2002 World Cup. Of course, when such acts are performed by English players, it’s usually described as “professionalism” or “playing the game” – only Johnny Foreigner actually cheats.

"Face the facts"

Winter even called for FIFA to ban Henry from the World Cup. Although we can all understand that cheats should not prosper, this does rather beg the question of where this moral crusade should end. For example, would he also ban Cristiano Ronaldo and Didier Drogba for their noted diving ability? Should we ban any other player that has handled the ball? At this rate, I might take my boots to South Africa next year, as there is every chance of getting a game. Of course, it will be galling to the Irish when they see Thierry Henry lead his French tea out behind FIFA’s huge “Fair Play” banner, but every dishonest act on a football pitch makes a mockery of this mission – as indeed does the presence of the likes of Sepp Blatter, Jack Warner and Chuck Blazer on FIFA’s Executive Committee. In fact, given the number of times that Blatter has sounded off about fair play, his failure to comment on last week’s match is hugely disappointing. By all means, let FIFA introduce retrospective bans for players caught cheating, but any changes in the rules should only be applied going forward.

My guess is that the extent of the media outrage over this incident is because previously Henry had appeared to be one of football’s good guys, whom the press has gushed over for years. Lionised for his scintillating attacking play, his intelligence and even his good looks, they simply would not have believed that he could be as underhand as a street scoundrel like Maradona, whose “Hand of God” is the closest precedent. Not least because Henry has always presented himself as a sporting paragon of virtue with a strong dislike of any form of cheating.

"Je ne regrette rien"

Whenever Henry felt injustice, the world tended to hear about it. He was quick to remind people that he had lost the 2001 FA Cup Final when playing for Arsenal as a result of Liverpool defender Stéphane Henchoz handling his goalbound shot. In a form of “what goes around comes around”, he also recalled his goal being wrongly disallowed for handball in a Champions League match against CSKA Moscow. In Paris Henry was also feeling aggrieved, as he was convinced that France should have been awarded a penalty a few minutes earlier and actually applauded the referee sarcastically for giving his team the free-kick from which the French scored.

After Wednesday’s match, Henry seemed to argue that these incidents might have been the driver for his unconscious basketball juggle of the ball. While he admitted that it was handball, which he could hardly deny as the TV pictures clearly showed it, he suggested that it was not deliberate: “To be honest, it was handball. The next thing I know the ball hit my hand and the ball was right in front of me and I played it”. The problem with this argument is that Henry so evidently handled the ball twice. While the first may have been an inadvertent reflex action, the second looked like an intentional manoeuvre, as he directed the ball with his hand, so that it dropped nicely on to his right foot for the pull-back across the area.

"Now you've gone and Dunne it"

Much of the anger directed towards Henry is due to his apparent lack of contrition. Once Gallas had profited from his deceitful handiwork, he raced away from the scene of the crime with a broad grin on his face so that he could join in with the goal celebrations. After the game, he gave a metaphorical Gallic shrug of the shoulders, as he half-heartedly apologised through the medium of Twitter, “I’m not the referee … but if I hurt someone I’m sorry”. Another one that can’t wait to blame the poor referee. Using the same logic, no criminal is responsible for his crime – that would be the fault of the inattentive police. Further absolving himself of any responsibility, he replied to one journalist: “Should I stop and tell the referee? No. That is very funny”.

After the final whistle, Henry did appear to realise that his actions looked far from good, so he made a great show of sitting down on the pitch to commiserate with the dejected Richard Dunne. He also called for a replay, saying that it would be the “fairest solution”, but only after FIFA had categorically announced that there would be no chance of the game being replayed.

A cynic might suggest that this was Henry’s attempt to salvage his tattered commercial reputation. Henry is rumoured to earn something like £15 million a year from his various endorsements with Gillette, Reebok and Pepsi Cola. So far his sponsors have stood by Henry, but they would surely reconsider his commercial usefulness if he were to be banned from the World Cup. Even if that does not happen, any brand that listed trust among its values is unlikely to want to be associated with someone “branded” (see what I did there?) a cheat. Henry may not be in desperate need of any more money, but his wealth certainly took a hit after his well publicised divorce.

"Do it clean"

Even though Henry’s cheating should be condemned, he should not be vilified more than any other player who has bent the rules, i.e. just about every other player in the history of football, just because it was a high profile match. It’s no different from the dives, the fouls, the obstructions, the shirt pulling, the time wasting, the throws claimed when you’ve last touched the ball, etc, etc. Furthermore, one moment of madness should not destroy the memory of all of Henry’s thrilling runs and spectacular goals, in the same way that Zinedine Zidane is not defined by his sending-off in the 2006 World Cup final for head-butting Marco Materazzi.

The French reaction to their qualification was remarkably balanced. While obviously pleased that their team was going to the World Cup, the papers were unhappy with the manner of their success. Bixente Lizarazu, full back in France’s 1998 World Cup winning side, lamented, “We’re going to the World Cup, but we go to the locker room with our heads bowed. It was not something to be proud of”. The exception to the rule was the ludicrous Raymond Domenech, who showed the world exactly why he is the most unpopular manager in French history: “I do not understand why we are being portrayed as the guilty party. I didn’t see it at the time. After I watched it back, I can see it is a mistake by the referee. To me this is the game and not cheating. I do not understand why we are being asked to apologise.” Yet another one happy to have a go at the referee, rather than blame Henry. Quelle surprise.

"Domenech hands it to his captain"

Even his opponents rushed to exonerate Henry. When Henry sat down next to Richard Dunne after the match, there appeared to be no hard feelings from the big Irish defender. The reason that Dunne was not incensed is that he knew he would have behaved the same way, given the chance. Damien Duff confirmed this when he said, “If it was myself or Robbie down the other end, we’d have tried it. You just expect the linesman or referee to see it”. Here we go again with dumping on the ref. Very few players demonstrate honesty or unselfishness on the pitch. Everyone remembers Robbie Fowler pleading for a penalty award to be rescinded and Paolo Di Canio deliberately missing an open goal, as the opposition goalkeeper lay helpless with a twisted knee, but these cases are few and far between. The harsh reality is that the culture in football is to get away with what you can – and the Irish players were well aware of that. The contrast between the fans’ outrage at the handball and the players’ acceptance speaks volumes.

So, if we cannot expect footballers to behave honourably, then we must find better ways of enforcing the laws. One obvious answer is video technology, which is already used successfully in other sports like rugby, cricket and tennis. Some argue that this would slow down the game, but this could be addressed by limiting the number of appeals, and in any case it’s not as if the game has clamped down on time wasting. Others say that technology does not always produce a totally clear answer, but that surely misses the point: it may not achieve perfection, but it would certainly prevent blatant injustices. The technology is available and present at every major match, so let’s get it on.

"He's good with his hands"

Alternatively, there could be widespread implementation of the extra assistant behind each goal line, the system that is the brainchild of UEFA President Michel Platini and is being trialed in this season’s Europa League. Yet another possibility is to simply ask the player whether he has cheated. Sounds terribly naïve, yes? Well, this is how it would work, based on an experiment in Germany. The referee would ask the player if he had handled the ball: If he says yes, then a free-kick is awarded and no further action taken. If he denies it, but is subsequently found to have lied by video evidence, then he would receive an automatic ban of, say, six matches. If he claims not to know, then the benefit is given to the opposition. Such a procedure would dramatically alter the risk/reward ratio.

What of the request for the match to be replayed? This has been rejected by FIFA and, for once, I agree with them, even if this was a really important game. The precedent cited by the FAI (Uzbekistan vs. Bahrain in a 2006 World Cup qualifier) is irrelevant, as in that case the referee wrongly applied the rules, rather than missing an offence. As a FIFA statesman said, “There is no way the game can replayed. To do so would cause absolute chaos for football. If it was replayed, then every match in the future would also be subject to these calls any time a referee misses an incident”. Then, we really would have a Never Ending Story.

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