Henry’s Handball

Henry’s Handball

While millions of Irish hearts broke all over the world, one nation’s passport to South Africa was firmly stamped, and one man’s otherwise brilliant career may have taken on a sour note during his final days on the pitch. Regardless of how much they wish to downplay it, this is one of the last things FIFA wanted at this point. Looking at 2009 objectively, one cannot say it was a good year for the people sitting at the top of the pyramid of football’s governing body. Repeated delays during the preparatory stages in host nation South Africa, coupled with the several complaints and issues pointed out during the Confederations Cup, also held in the same country, put into question FIFA’s reasoning of having the competition held there for the sake of “globalizing” the event; although some will argue, and with good cause, that it was merely a political tactic to make the organization come off as “politically correct”. Now consider the increase in turmoil between players, clubs and their astronomical contract values, along with several tragic incidents ranging from violence on and off the pitch to the recent death of German Goalkeeper Enke, discovered to be a suicide; it all leaves a very bad taint on what is supposed to be the “beautiful game”.

And setting aside the varied doses of the same problems cited above that have happened in 2007 and 2008, one would think that FIFA would at least be looking forward to a World Cup with few problems on the “playing” side of things; they were dead wrong.

For starters, they have had to deal with the boisterous comments of controversial player turned manager, Diego Maradonna, who was recently suspended by FIFA for inappropriate behavior; but they should have come to expect no less from one of history’s most brilliant and infamous players. Then they had to deal with the backlash of the UEFA Runners UP Playoffs for the World Cup, having changed the rules use in the last draw, which effectively put all the “big guns” in one pot, so as to avoid them playing each other. Whatever their rationale may have been , and arguments that said teams are higher in the rankings and thus deserve considerations have been made, it’s obvious that it was simply a way to have former world champions France and Current World Player of the Year Home Nation, Portugal, in a better position to qualify.

Having brushed off said criticism, one can only assume that they had expected little or no problems when the French drew the Irish; once again, they were wrong. Now, one can honestly assume that to FIFA, while hoping that France would qualify so they could once again have a chance of boasting that the World Cup will feature all the former champions (keeping in mind that Uruguai were still battling it out with Costa Rica over a spot), had no more than a simple “preference” as to who went through between France and Ireland. In the first game, when France won 1 0 in Dublin, FIFA must have though their dreams were about to come true. In Paris, however, things turned out a little different than expected.

When Ireland scored the first goal in the Stade de France, returning the away goal and evening it all up, things started to change. The brave Boys in Green, played a hard fought game and were justly rewarded with the opening advantage and had the score remained that way, extra time and penalties would have followed. Regardless of who would end up winning the game, for FIFA it would have been a democratic solution either way and things were going as smoothly as could be expected.

That is, until French striker Thierry Henry handled the ball before setting up the ball for fellow teammate Gallas to equalize for Le Bleu.

In that singular moment, FIFA had a nightmare on their hand. For starters, this was no simple case of the ball moving too fast and striking the players hand or something that could even be called dubious. FIFA has very specific regulations about handling the ball and what should and should not be considered illegal; this was no accident. Continual replays of the incident clearly show arm usage that would be called “lifting” in volleyball. Henry’s hand makes full contact with the ball, and not the other way around.

Of course, it would all have been fine had the referee seen it and called the play; but, alas, he was in an impossible position to see what happened. The linesmen, who were in position, said nothing, as if waiting to take their cue from the senior official. The fourth official, sometimes called the sideline official, seemed uninterested. And while this all makes one question the point of having that many officials in the game if nobody can call a simple handball, it does not change the fact that the goal was recognized and the game allowed to continue in its dying moments, in spite of the players protests. When it was all said and done, the 1 1 draw sent France to South Africa and the Irish back to Dublin, making them have to wait another four years.

If FIFA expected things to blow over quickly, guess what? They were wrong, again!

The Football Association of Ireland (FAI) filed a formal protest with FIFA, demanding that the math be replayed, arguing a precedent established by a decision to replay a match from the 2006 qualifiers, also due to controversial refereeing. Irish government officials also made it a point to show their disdain over the incident, promising to bring the issue to their frnch counterparts. Ironically, even the French themselves have stated that they believe that France did not deserve to clinch a spot in the World Cup this way, as show by a survey French newspaper Le Monde, where over 85% of over a hundred thousand readers voted that Le Bleu were indeed undeserving of going to South Africa. And it hasn’t stopped there, as newspapers, sports commentators and columnists from all over world have lent their support to the Irish cause.

Ironically, the main antagonist in all of this, Thierry Henry, has publically stated over that last couple of days that he did indeed “handle” the ball, but made it clear that he “was not the referee”. His words may sting and rube people the wrong way, but they ring true; as much as there is an onus on every player to play the game fairly, it is up to the match official to decide what is right and wrong. In his most recent comments, Henry has even gone so far as to state that a replay of the match would be fairest thing to do. Call him magnanimous or humble, for Henry, this is all about damage control, as FIFA could very well impose punishment on Henry over the incident, which could cost him anything from a single match ban to possibly missing the World Cup altogether. The French striker hasn’t reached a form anywhere near to that of his tenure with Arsenal since his move to Spanish Giants Barcelona and even his place on the French nation Team has been put into question, especially with the rise of younger striker like Benzema. Certainly, this sort of controversy would make for an undesirable black mark on an otherwise impressive and victorious career.

After remaining otherwise “quiet”, FIFA have finally release a statement claiming that the match will not be replayed and that the referee’s decisions in games are final. In doing so, they have firmly “put their foot down” on the issue. What FIFA might be failing to realize is that this whole situation puts into question the quality of the referees being used both during the qualifying stages and the World Cup itself, the latter being much more of a political decision that anything else. Granted that having more than one referee from a given country might create the appearance of impropriety due to a potential conflict of interest, but can one honestly say that having a “small time” referee, that is to say, from a “less representative” nation and who is not accustomed to officiating high level games on a continual basis, the best way to preserve the game’s integrity?

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