On The Big Occasion, Thierry Henry Fails To Meet His Own High Standards
It wasn't the way to win a place at the World Cup, never mind lose one.
Nevertheless, Thierry Henry's illegal intervention during a closely-fought World Cup play-off between France and Ireland was the decisive act in a tie that deserved much better.
From the player to the referee and even the sport, few came away from the night with any credit.
The valiant Irish players can hold their heads high—but that will be scant consolation considering the devastating manner of their defeat.
It was worse that the pivotal moment came in extra-time, after Robbie Keane had clawed Ireland back onto level terms after an admirable team performance.
With questions of offside in the build up to a free-kick being delivered into the box, Henry looked to have misjudged the ball’s flight—before his hands came to the rescue.
The first contact looked instinctive, with the French No. 12 arguably knowing little about it on a conscious level.
But the second touch with his still-outstretched left arm was clearly deliberate, and set the ball perfectly for him to then slip the ball past the onrushing Shay Given with the outside of his right boot.
William Gallas, barely a yard out, had the simplest of jobs in nodding the ball into the open net.
For some, the fact Henry wheeled away and celebrated the goal was the most distasteful aspect of the whole scenario.
If the incident itself suggested the Barcelona forward was a cheat, then the public way he enjoyed the moment certainly confirmed it.
With referee Martin Hansson turning down Irish players' prolonged appeals for hand-ball, the goal stood and France held on to book their place in South Africa next summer.
After the game, unsurprisingly all discussion was focused on Henry.
Arsene Wenger, the 32-year-old's former manager at Arsenal, stated on French television that France had gone through thanks to a “refereeing error”.
French goalscorer Gallas professed that he did not notice an infringement. Manager Raymond Domenech went as far as to suggest he didn’t see anything.
Irish players were not quite so reticent.
“I think it was quite blatant that he cheated. The linesman was in line with the incident, it wasn’t even a hard decision to make,” defender Richard Dunne said.
“All European people saw the situation. I am sure that, if the referee had asked Henry, he would have admitted to the handball,” Irish boss Giovanni Trapattoni noted.
“I am sad because the referee had the time to ask the linesman and Henry.
"I am upset for fair play because we are told many times about fair play. I go into schools to talk about fair play and tell the young kids that it’s important for their life.”
Having avoided the press after the game for as long as he could, eventually the villain of the piece emerged from the dressing room at the Stade de France to admit his guilt, albeit with a caveat.
“I will be honest, it was a handball,” Henry said, “but I’m not the ref.
“I played it, the ref allowed it. That’s a question you should ask him.”
In the subsequent news and media coverage, few stepped in to defend Henry.
But once some of the dust had settled, Noel Le Graet, vice president of the French Football Federation, attempted to put the Barcelona striker’s actions into perspective.
"Having seen the replays it seems the hand made contact—the player has confirmed this. It's part of the game and you know it is not something Thierry Henry makes a habit of doing,” Le Graet argued.
"I think [a description of] 'cheating' is extreme. Football is complicated. Hand-balls are part of the game. Henry should be judged on the full extent of his career and therefore I think the one word you cannot associate with him is cheat.”
He is a man of enormous quality. He loves football and he loves the French national side.”
Whether in time many will come to see the 67-year-old’s view as reasonable remains to be seen, but right now many are wondering why a player like Henry would do such a thing.
To some the equation is simple: The ends justify the means. Henry’s act will see France play at the World Cup next summer, with the chance to lift the biggest prize in sport.
But because it is Henry, such a clear rationale leaves a hollow feeling.
If it had been Robbie Keane, Damien Duff, or even Nicolas Anelka taking matters into their own hands, then perhaps the outcry would be more predictable.
Such players are good but not greats of the game, and in the case of Anelka at least still struggling to shake off a negative public perception.
Such a pillorying of these three players, or any of the other 21 who took the field last night, would have been swift and without discord.
But Henry has the power to stir complex emotions in almost all football fans.
In the history of football, Henry will rightly stand head and shoulders above anyone else who took the field last night.
His career has been one sparkling highlight after another, with his time at Arsenal a halcyon period for both Gunners fans and those of English football.
His footballing ability inspired millions, but his character and easy charm equally warmed many to a special player.
A World Cup winner in 1998, he was well on the way to ending his playing days revered as one of the finest the game has ever seen.
But his actions yesterday evening served as a slap in the face to all who have admired him.
Yesterday’s debacle will not ruin Henry’s reputation, just as a similar act did not leave the legacy of Diego Maradona, another great, in tatters.
But it will certainly tarnish it.
After all, Henry was faced with just two simple choices after Gallas turned his cross home—deceive or disclose.
In the heat of the moment, he choose the wrong and, most disappointingly, easier option—turning his back on a moment of sportsmanship that could arguably have been the making of him, as a man if not as a footballer.
Paulo di Canio, a player with a habit of sharing Fascist salutes with fans and pushing referees, will always be remembered for his famous act of sportsmanship in 2000, stopping play and spurning an easy goal scoring opportunity because the opposition goalkeeper had gone down injured.
Thierry Henry, a man held as an example to kids around the world due to his spotless image, was unable to match Di Canio's honesty and integrity under the same split-second pressure.
Such is the unpredictability of human nature.
At the final whistle, Henry shunned the celebrations of his fellow team-mates to go and commiserate with a distraught Richard Dunne. Under different circumstances, such an act of sportsmanship would have been widely lauded.
Last night, it didn’t even balance the books.
For once, Henry had failed to attain the same high standards he has set throughout his career.
Only time will tell whether that will be his lasting legacy.
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