Soccer: France's Sweet Cheat Thierry Henry

  • Share
  • Read Later

A TV screen grab shows Thierry Henry handling the ball during France's World Cup 2010 playoff match against the Republic of Ireland

French soccer player Thierry Henry has always been known as a gentleman. His anti-racism work and sense of fair play have earned him accolades and awards for years, including an appearance in TIME's 2005 European Heroes list. As of Nov. 19, however, many in the soccer world are calling Henry a heel rather than a hero, after his illegal play — apparently deliberate — allowed France to claim one of the final spots in next year's World Cup.

In extra time, Henry clearly controlled the ball with his hand before passing it on for the goal that secured France's ticket to South Africa next June. The referee didn't see the incident and allowed the goal to stand despite howls of protest from the Irish players. After the game, Henry admitted that he had touched the ball, but in a manner implying it was accidental — an assertion that compounded the sin because replays showed he actually touched it twice, the second time with a certainty that suggested it was deliberate. "I cannot speak, I am so angry," fumed Ireland's Italian coach, Giovanni Trapattoni, after the game. "All the European people saw we deserved to win or at least get to penalties. All I ask is for fair play," he said.

In contrast to Trapattoni's righteous fury at being robbed, France's relief at making the finals was shot through with embarrassment and even shame. "The Hand of God" was the ironic headline in France's sports daily l'Equipe, a reference to the notorious hand punch Argentine striker Diego Maradona admitted he'd used to score the winning goal over England in a 1986 World Cup quarterfinal match. "Les Bleus: Hands Up," echoed Libération in its coverage of what it called France's "holdup" of the Irish team that had utterly dominated Wednesday's game prior to Henry's pawing of the ball.

The British press, not always friendly to Irish sports teams, went ballistic. "Ireland Cheated out of the World Cup by the Cruel Hand of Thierry Henry," blasted the Guardian. "Thierry Henry Is an Insincere Cheat Who Has Tarnished His Reputation for Good," wailed former Irish international star Tony Cascarino in a Times of London piece. (That last one came with a certain amount of irony, given Cascarino's admission in his 2000 autobiography that he shouldn't have qualified to play for Ireland's national team from 1985 to 1999, since the grandfather he cited as proof of his Irish ancestry had adopted his mother. "It was no real big deal," he wrote of his own footballing sleight of hand. "No one could have been prouder than me to play for the Republic. I loved every minute of it.")

Soccer's governing body, FIFA, is unlikely to rush into action over the incident. The game will surely not be replayed — to do so would be to invite replays of any number of controversy-marred matches from the past (though Ireland's football association has now asked FIFA for a replay). But because FIFA has spent the past few years promoting the idea of fair play above all, it will be hard to ignore this altogether. "Winning is without value if victory has been achieved unfairly or dishonestly," reads the body's Code of Conduct. "Cheating is easy but brings no pleasure."

One question being asked today was how all four of the referees officiating the game could have failed to see Henry use his hand to control the ball. The logical fix: allow referees to consult video as they do in professional baseball, hockey, basketball and American football, as well as in international sports like cricket, rugby and tennis. Since video has vastly reduced officiating errors in these sports — just last month, the first video review in baseball World Series history was used to turn a double by the New York Yankees' Alex Rodriguez into a two-run homer — it could do so in soccer, right?

An increasing number of fans say yes. But both FIFA and its European pillar, Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), have repeatedly rejected using video. Both bodies have threatened European pro leagues with dire consequences if they even test the use of replay. FIFA officials and the UEFA president, former French soccer great Michel Platini, advance a slim list of unconvincing reasons for slapping video down. The cost of such technology, they argue, would mean leagues in poorer countries wouldn't be able to use video, dividing soccer into haves and have-nots. They also claim that the time taken out to consult replays would destroy the rhythm of play and that video would not fix all errors. Those objections were initially sounded in other sports where video later proved quite efficient in preventing referee flubs.

Instead, Platini has been testing the use of two additional referees, stationed behind each goal. These officials would scrutinize play in the penalty area — where the majority of contested calls are made. The problem with that, critics say, is it simply adds two more fallible humans to the current four-person officiating teams. "Thierry Henry's handling of the ball should relaunch the debate on video in soccer, because viewing replays would have allowed officials to sanction the offense, disallow the goal and preserve the integrity of the match," former French referee Bruno Derrien told France Info radio.

There is one precedent of a referee using video in soccer — and it happens to infuriate French fans, to boot. Toward the end of the 2006 World Cup final, the assistant referee peeked at a television monitor to witness a replay of French star Zinedine Zidane head-butting Italian rival Marco Materazzi to the ground. Shocked at the violence — and ignoring FIFA rules forbidding use of replays — the assistant referee signaled the offense to his unsuspecting central official, who promptly slapped Zidane with a red card. Few have faulted that sanctioning of an outrageous foul that the official never actually saw. Let's go to the videotape — now!