It’s not fair, and I think you’re really mean
(Not Fair, Lily Allen)
I hate to point this out to the many (and there are very many) crusading for truth, justice and the Irish way into the 2010 World Cup, but football has never been fair. And its integrity has been, at best, shaky for many years now: I'm not entirely sure how one act of deception can strike at the foundations of the sport any more than, say, Serie A's calciopoli scandal.
Thierry Henry: Most evil person in the history of the world? Er, no
Let's put Henry's part in this to rest, shall we? He handled the ball twice; the first time looked accidental, the second much less so. But it was a spur-of-the-moment action, and anyone who can state with absolute certainty that they would have owned up is kidding themselves. (Honestly? I'd like to think I would own up, but I suspect I wouldn't, at least not on the spot.) Before the indignant and the self-righteous start attaching epithets such as 'scumbag' to Henry - and a quick trawl of blogs, discussion boards and Twitter will show you there has been plenty of this already - it would be wise to remember the old biblical parable: let he who is without sin cast the first stone.
Henry handled the ball; he made a snap decision which he will regret later. (Haven't we all done that at times?) His reputation will be slightly tarnished but hardly ruined, as some are claiming it will be. Yes, I am disappointed that he has shown himself to be merely human, but that does not diminish his talent or his achievements in the game.
5 of the worst
From some of the media coverage I have read over the past two days, you might think Thierry Henry is the only player who had cheated in a football game anywhere ever. Clearly that is ridiculous. Here are five others, all of whose 'crimes' should be familiar to football fans:
Diego Maradona - Scorer of the infamous 'Hand of God' goal in a 1986 World Cup quarter-final against England. Later tested positive for cocaine, became a laughing stock over his ballooning weight, and is now proving to be an inept and foul-mouthed national coach. Nonetheless, one of the best footballers ever to walk on to a pitch.
Roy Carroll - Manchester United goalkeeper who, chasing desperately back after a Pedro Mendes lob, clawed the ball back when it was two feet over the goalline and knowingly, nonchalantly played on. United won 1-0.
Harald Schumacher - German goalkeeper who, in a 1982 World Cup semi-final, charged out of his box and leapt into France's Patrick Battiston, breaking his jaw. The referee awarded a goal kick.
Roy Keane - Pre-meditated stamp on Manchester City's Alf-Inge Haaland, for which he was correctly sent off. Later admitted that he had set out to deliberately hurt Haaland in revenge for a taunt over three years previously.
Stephane Henchoz - Deliberate first-half handball on the goalline in the 2001 FA Cup final, preventing a certain goal. Liverpool rallied behind two late goals by Michael Owen to defeat Arsenal 2-1.
Anyhow, the 'Hand of Frog', as it has been termed, happened. Replays show the referee (who otherwise had a very good game) was unsighted, and that his assistant may not have had a clear view either. It's unfortunate, but it happens; no matter how good an official is, he cannot anticipate every eventuality. Michel Platini's experiment with AARs (additional assistant referees), currently being piloted in the Europa League, would have helped in this instance, as the extra official at that end of the field would have been standing to the right side of the Irish goal, with a perfect view of the handball. (I'm not a big fan of AARs, by the way, but they are better than nothing.)
The argument supporting the use of technology to help match officials will begin again - as it should do. I have long been a proponent of the judicious use of replays to reverse clear miscarriages of justice - a dive in the penalty area, the ball crossing the goal line, a clear foul in the build-up to a goal - an aid which has been enormously beneficial in other sports.
Sorry, Shay, the world (and the World Cup) isn’t about fairness
Ireland goalkeeper Shay Given has also spoken about how the incident may have cost him his last chance to play at a World Cup tournament. And while I feel sorry for him, Richard Dunne and others for whom this probably was their one shot, there are other, more deserving players who have never been to a World Cup either: Ryan Giggs, George Weah and George Best to name but three. (And, equally, there are many less deserving players who have been to one or more torunaments.)
And, when you look at it, the whole way the World Cup qualifying process is set up is fundamentally unfair, and deliberately so. The tournament is not intended to feature the best 32 teams in the world - if it did, Europe would have more than 13 qualifiers - rather it is supposed to encourage global development of the sport by bringing together representatives from all the continental federations. As such, Europe is handicapped at the expense of, say, Oceania.
If the 'fairest' way of determining the 32 qualifiers for next year's World Cup was to take the host nation and then add the 31 highest-ranking countries according to the FIFA world rankings, Europe would be sending 18 (not 13) teams to South Africa with Croatia (ranked 10th), Russia (13th), Bulgaria (27th) and Norway (31st) elevated at the expense of qualifiers such as New Zealand (77th) and North Korea (84th).
But that isn't the case. It's just how it is.
So, yes, the Republic of Ireland have discovered this week that football isn't fair. Tell us something we didn't already know. Twas ever thus.