DUBLIN, Ireland ― Ireland just can’t catch a break these days. The economy is in the tank, the weather is atrocious and now the country has been robbed — by a Frenchman.
The Irish soccer team was denied a place in next year’s World Cup finals in South Africa by a blatant hand ball in a knockout match against France on Wednesday evening in Paris. The Irish soccer association has demanded a replay. With the score tied and only minutes of extra time remaining, French captain Thierry Henry palmed the ball down with his hand, a clear foul, allowing his teammate William Gallas to score the winning goal.
The resulting sense of outrage, not only in Ireland where there was uproar in parliament, but throughout the soccer world, has been compounded by the fact that the game of soccer itself has been brought into disrepute.
Henry is not just a great player, he is held up to young footballers as a role model for fair play. Two years ago in Boston, Gillette launched an advertising campaign based on Henry, golfer Tiger Woods and tennis player Roger Federer, billing them as three of the “best-known, widely respected and successful athletes in the world.” At the time the French star proclaimed that “a champion stands up for what is right and encourages others to do the same.”
Even the French media acknowledged on Thursday that France got its place in the World Cup finals by foul means. “Henry saves France with his hand,” read the headline in Le Parisien. The sports daily L’Equipe simply proclaimed, “Hand of God.” (Every soccer fan knows of the “hand of God” claim by Argentinean footballer Diego Maradona, when his unpenalized hand ball resulted in a 2-1 victory over England in the 1986 World Cup quarter-final.)
The Swedish referee Martin Hansson, who allowed France’s goal at the Stade de France, has been castigated by the media in his own country. A writer in the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet said, “There are approximately 80 million Irishmen around the world. We guarantee they all feel pretty bad today. But I sincerely hope there are three Swedes that feel even worse. They are Martin Hansson and [assistants] Stefan Wittberg and Fredrik Nilsson.”
Henry admitted handling the ball and claimed he even confessed this during the match to Hansson, who replied, “You are not the ref.” This admission led to much sarcastic comment on Irish websites, where the incident was compared to a policeman telling a self-confessed bank robber that he, the police officer, would decide whether the robber had committed a crime.
The Irish team’s deputy manager, Liam Brady, said only a re-match would save the integrity of the game of soccer — “and we’ll go to Paris to play it.” The result has heightened the suspicions of small countries like Ireland that FIFA, soccer's world governing body, wanted France to win, so that the big countries would be among the 32 finalists in South Africa. This match was one of four play-offs among second-placed teams in Europe’s qualifying groups. FIFA ensured, by a seeding process, that big-name teams like Germany and France would not meet each other in these knockout games.
Ireland’s captain, Roy Keane, furious that the seeding put the Irish at a disadvantage, said with heavy sarcasm that the top managers of world football “are all probably clapping hands … probably texting each other, delighted with the result.”
In the Irish parliament, opposition member Alan Shatter called FIFA a deeply suspect organization and said the result had been obtained by “sleight of hand,” while Deputy Prime Minister Mary Coughlan called for the introduction of television verification of disputed decisions in soccer.
Ireland were considered the underdogs against France but under Italian trainer Giovanni Trapattoni, raised their game and outplayed the French for most of the match.
Even before the hand ball the game was given an edge by an insulting comment from French coach Raymond Domenech that Ireland was only “England’s B team,” a reference to the fact that most Irish team members play for English league teams.