Oh Henry! What have you done to our souls?
If you suspect that modern competitiveness in sport, like Thierry Henry’s disgraceful cheating in the match against Ireland, is playing havoc with the notion of honour, then you’re a hopeless old fogey who takes this stuff far too seriously. But then again, you might just be right.
World Cup 2010 has its first massive talking point. French captain Thierry Henry’s double handling of the ball which saved his team from World Cup elimination has soccer fans embroiled in an emotional cauldron.
Yet behind Henry’s act of stupendous callousness lies a broader sickness; a world in which achievement on the sport field is rated higher than honour in life.
There are four arguments within the soccer fraternity about the Republic of Ireland/France game: first, the game should be played over with Henry banned; second, the game should be played over with Henry included, third, the result should stand, but Henry should be banned from playing in the World Cup and fourth, the result should simply stand.
According to a poll by the BBC, soccer fans are fairly evenly divided on the four options.
The argument in favour of letting the result stand is simply that the rules say the ultimate decision maker is the referee of the match. If the referee did not see the infringement, then that is all that can be said about the matter.
This is also Henry’s argument, although he claims, obviously falsely, that his decision to tap a ball that was trickling past him out of play down to his feet in the dying moments of the game was instinctive and reflexive. He told Richard Dunne, one of the most hardworking Irish players, that the Irish had deserved to win, and admitted that he had handled the ball. "But," he added, "I am not the referee."
The problem with this approach is that this might be well and good in most games, but this one was special. It decided who would participate in the World Cup in South Africa next year and who would not. As it stands, France are in and Ireland are out. Soccer fans can stomach bad luck in a league match because there will always be another tournament or another year or another or another match. But do it in a match which decides who will play and who will not at the World Cup is simply cruel and unfair.
This is why two other options directly target Henry, either banning him from the World Cup or from the replay. The latter aims at simply resetting not the rights and wrongs, but merely history by starting again. The problem with all these options is that they would be so exceptional and so precedent-setting that the effort seems unlikely. (Although, at the club level, the precedent does exist: in 1999, Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger did an honourable thing and offered Sheffield United a replay of their FA Cup game moments after the match had finished. Arsenal's winning goal resulted from Kanu failing to return the ball to the Sheffield players, after they kicked it into touch to allow an Arsenal player to receive injury help. Arsenal won the replayed game 2-1 and Wenger’s reputation was much enhanced. – Ed, aka ‘Old Fogey’)
Sometimes the loss must lay where it falls, and this time it’s at the feet of a plucky team, but a team which anyway were unlikely contenders and who, when all is said and done, did not do enough to force themselves into the finals.
The other soccer talking point is whether a television umpire should be installed, particularly since they have proved so successful in cricket, rugby and tennis. This may be the compromise solution; an attempt not at re-casting history, but at least at trying to ensure it does not happen again.
Yet these are all questions of soccer, not questions of character, and it’s here that the vexed issue finally rests. The question comes down to this: why do soccer players still cheat when they know hundreds of cameras and instant television replays will find them out?
Clearly the touch-and-go position of the French team had something to do with it. Clearly also Henry’s captaincy of the side had something to do with it. Clearly national pride was driving him to places he might not normally have gone.
Henry doesn’t have a history of cheating, or particularly of being a bad sportsman. Yet in a moment of thoughtlessness, a chevalier of the Legion d'honneur dishonoured his country and the game.
Perhaps it’s easier to make this claim from the outside than from within. If you are trained from an early age to win, trained to believe success means victory and victory means success, then acts of instinctive madness are much less difficult to understand.
Sports people are instinctively competitive, and if they weren’t, they wouldn’t be sports people. Who are we, mere spectators, to judge?
Yet we do and we should. Guardian sports writer Richard Williams points out that in 1997 Robbie Fowler unsuccessfully pleaded with the referee to rescind a penalty he awarded to Liverpool at Highbury after the whistle had been blown for a perceived foul on him by David Seaman.
In 2000, while playing for West Ham, Paolo Di Canio stopped play by catching the ball when he saw that the opposition's goalkeeper, Paul Gerrard of Everton, was lying helpless in the penalty area after twisting his knee while clearing the ball.
And last March, during a Romanian first division match between Rapid Bucharest and Otelul Galati, Costin Lazar of Rapid refused to take a penalty because he did not believe he had been fouled, and eventually the official agreed with him.
If acts of superior sportsmanship are possible even in tight matches, then clearly Henry has let the side down; not just his own side, but the sport as a whole. Yet outrageous as it is, it seems to matter less than winning even now while the issue is white hot.
Listen to France international Emmanuel Petit: "I don't think it will damage his reputation. Thierry has done so much in his career and this is a very rare indiscretion. It's similar to the situation with Zinedine Zidane - he's been sent off plenty of times ... we always found an excuse for Zidane so why can't we find one for Thierry as well?"
What? A flagrant indiscretion is being forgiven before the sun has even set twice on the incident. The fact is that over time the seriousness of sporting contests has begun taking on a grander meaning than could ever have been conceived of when the codes were formed. They are now substitutes for national prowess, they are replacements for personal success, and proxies for personal relationships.
All of this tends to help fans forgive players for sliding into the grey areas to win. Sports administrators know that and consequently try desperately to stay out of these controversies.
Yet with each blow of the axe, a wood chip is loosed, and eventually the tree will fall.
By Tim Cohen
Photo: France's team captain Thierry Henry reacts in their World Cup qualifying playoff return leg match against Ireland at the Stade de France stadium in Saint Denis near Paris November 18, 2009. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier (FRANCE SPORT SOCCER)
WATCH: Henry's goal