To the great sorrow of Irish soccer fans, the fat lady of their sport sang on Friday, dashing what little hope Ireland had left of reviving its vanquished World Cup dreams.
On Friday, Nov. 20, soccer's international governing body, FIFA, rejected Ireland's demands that its controversial World Cup qualifying playoff match against France Wednesday night be replayed in light of the clearly illegal play by French striker Thierry Henry that set up the goal securing France's ticket to South Africa next June. The reasoning went along with FIFA's established habit of focusing on the letter rather than spirit of its rules: if referee Martin Hansson failed to spot Henry's use of his left hand to rein in the ball and let the ensuing goal by teammate William Gallas stand that's what should go down in the official books, no matter how much evident cheating was involved.
"FIFA states that the result of the match cannot be changed and the match cannot be replayed," the organization's communiqué said Friday. "As is clearly mentioned in the Laws of the Game, during matches, decisions are taken by the referee and these decisions are final."
If the collective groans of anger and claims of deception from Ireland were audible in Paris, the Irish weren't hearing any corresponding sighs of relief and certainly no cries of joy booming from France. Indeed, as the international furor surrounding Henry's handball showed no signs of abating Friday, the initially sheepish yet reassured reaction of French fans, commentators and politicians following their team's World Cup qualification morphed into something closer to shameful discomfort.
The French daily le Parisien ran a full-front-page photo of Henry reaching with his hand to control the ball under the headline "Le Malaise." In its Friday editorial, Libération urged French officials to join Irish calls to replay the match. The conservative daily le Figaro, meanwhile, was anything but hyperbolic, with its headline blaring, "Thierry Henry's Hand Has Become an Affair of State."
Make that two states. On Thursday, Irish leaders aired outrage over France's illicit extra-time goal, including Prime Minister Brian Cowen, who said he'd personally take the issue up with French President Nicolas Sarkozy the next time they met. During a press conference later Thursday, Sarkozy met Cowen halfway, saying, "I told Brian Cowen how sorry I was" for Ireland's World Cup dreams having been derailed by Henry's actions, but adding that he couldn't intervene in an area that should be off-limits to politics.
But other officials in France weren't as reserved about signaling their discomfort over the tainted win. French Sport and Health Minister Roselyne Bachelot admitted that her "feelings are split between what you might call cowardly relief and great consternation." Her Cabinet colleague Economy Minister Christine Lagarde went further, telling RTL radio Friday that she found it "sad to qualify by cheating" and saying the situation merited a rematch. In apparent anticipation of FIFA's ruling against that possibility, Lagarde then said that when "rules are bad, you have to call them into question."
Politicians weren't the only ones weighing in. One of the main unions representing French teachers, SNEP-FSU, released a statement condemning Henry's "indisputable cheating" and said the initial comments by officials seeking to minimize the controversy reflected the attitude that "the most important thing in sport is to win." Jean-Louis Triaud, president of the Girondins of Bordeaux pro soccer club, said Wednesday night's outcome had produced "a bad image of soccer and a bitter victory." And veteran French sports announcer Thierry Roland called both the cheating and its consequences for Ireland "a scandal a disgrace with a capital D!"
Such wide disapproval in France was in stark contrast to the wide public support former French hero Zinedine Zidane received following his infamous head-butting incident with an Italian opponent during the 2006 World Cup final. Perhaps this is the reason Henry himself finally stepped up with a near mea culpa. In a statement sent to the British TV channel Sky Sports, Henry broke his silence since his postmatch admission that he had handled the ball, acknowledging that "the fairest solution would be to replay the game." He insisted that the use of his hand during the game was "an instinctive reaction" and defended his previously irreproachable reputation by saying, "I am not a cheat and never have been." "I naturally feel embarrassed at the way that we won and feel extremely sorry for the Irish who definitely deserve to be in South Africa," he said.
Unfortunately, his call for a rematch came a few hours after FIFA had already rejected the idea outright. Ireland fans might be excused, then, for not thinking Henry's comments were better late than never.