“Before the finger is pointed – I was there”

Throughout the last few days I have listened to a huge array of opinions on Thierry Henry and ‘Le Main de Dieu,’ most of them from angry Irish fans or embarrassed French supporters.

Throughout the last few days I have listened to a huge array of opinions on Thierry Henry and ‘Le Main de Dieu,’ most of them from angry Irish fans or embarrassed French supporters. I must admit I have been shocked by the vast majority of it. And before the finger is pointed that I don’t care enough or just don’t get it – I was there. I sat in the stadium long after the final whistle with tears in my eyes, overwhelmed by the immense pride I felt in the players and sadness, anger and regret at the injustice of it all and by what might have been. In the aftermath and the mass hysteria I cant help but feel that a few things have been forgotten, possibly even conveniently by the Irish people.

First of all, I am quite surprised at the vilifying of Thierry Henry by so many people, not just the Irish media, but the French and much of the English press as well. Don’t get me wrong, as he raced away celebrating the goal, I wanted to smash his face in but that is a justified reaction for an Irish fan at the match, swept up in the emotion of it all. After the dust has settled, however, I can see that Henry has become an easily identifiable target, with a big red cross on his back for all sorts of Irish resentment. Yes he cheated but why has the reaction been so strong? In football where do we draw the line on what is cheating and what isn’t? Is every foul cheating? Every tug of a jersey? Every nudge in the back? Are we to start calling for replays of every game where someone has broken the rules? Or is it only when the foul is as blatant as Henry’s? But surely the blatancy of the foul only indicts the referee and his assistant, not the perpetrator? There are plenty of cynical fouls every week in every premiership match and every Sunday league game across the country and people are not branded cheats for it, certainly not by their owns fans. The main reason is because the fouls don’t go unnoticed, free kicks are given, cards brandished, players punished for their attempts to get away with cheating. It is the referees fault and the assistant referees fault that the goal stood. It is not for Henry to decide. What he did wasn’t right or just but he did what many others do every week, at every level and what I, along with many other Irish supporters, would have been happy to see Robbie Keane do if it meant boarding the plane to South Africa at the expense of the French. 

Matthew Le Tissier was asked on Sky Sports if he’d ever cheat in golf, and if not, why was it OK to do it in football. There is no referee watching everything a player does in golf and there is an inherit code of honesty involved. This code doesn’t exist in football. The referee is who decides what is a foul and what is not. I loathe divers and am disgusted at what Henry did but the question still has to be asked about what is intelligent gamesmanship and what is cheating. Also, those who say that diving and other forms of cheating are a new thing in football are wrong. Diving may be on the increase but for as long as the game has existed, players have tried to get an advantage over their opponents without the referee catching them. That’s just the way it is. That is what happens in sport, especially when there is huge amounts of money and rewards involved. This is not cheating by the same token as an athlete taking performance enhancing drugs, methodically, over a long period of time in order to get an unfair advantage over the opposition. These are split second decisions that happen all the time and if it had been the other way I don’t think we would complain too much. In fact, even in this competition, we were awarded a dubious penalty, while 1-0 down to Georgia. We went on to win 2-1, counted our lucky chickens, sighed in relief and moved on. We didn’t feel sorry for Georgia or embarrassed by our victory. We didn’t apologise or offer to repay the match. Nor should we have. If Fifa went down the route of re playing football matches if there was a wrong refereeing decision than we’d never have a result. In this case it was the most blatant foul in the world and the stakes were so high but it would still set a precedent. Who’s to say a foul not given by a referee and then a goal scored 10 minutes later could not be blamed on that decision and a replay called?

It hurts. I know it does but we do have to move on. We rode our luck and played poorly at times during the group. We played reasonably poorly in the first leg in Croke Park. Anelka might have had a penalty. Not only that but it seems to be forgotten that we still would have had to win a penalty shoot out. I think some Irish people are delighted with the outcome. We go out, unjustly after a truly magnificent, gutsy, Irish performance. We can whinge and moan, talk for years to come how were cheated out of a world cup, although we still had a lot to do to get there and we’ll never know if we would have. I don’t want to go down the Roy Keane road (who went way down in my estimations after his most recent rant) but we had our chances to win the game, Paul McShane wasn’t goal side, the ball bounced in the box when it should have been cleared and even if we’d been given the free out, we still had an awful lot to do to get to South Africa. 

I’m gutted we never got that chance. I’m heartbroken that a handball denied us that opportunity. I’m immensely proud of one of the best ever Irish performances. I’m just slightly bemused by the reaction worldwide to it. I understand the clamour for video technology and believe it should be used but that is about it. I don’t think Henry is to blame for our exit – the referee is. I don’t think there should or will be a replay. I don’t think the claims from people who say they’ve lost faith in football our justified. It was a dark night for Irish football but we need to pick ourselves up and get over it. Thanks for an amazing performance lads, a truly memorable night and restoring my faith in Irish football.

barry@universitytimes.ie