Henry's hand ends Irish World Cup hopes


After a thrilling performance that promised for so long to deliver Irish soccer its most famous ever result, the chilly Parisian air was filled with rancour late last night after a disputed French goal cruelly ended Ireland¿s hopes of playing in next year¿s World Cup in South Africa.

In the end, Thierry Henry¿s hand was all that separated the two sides at the Stade de France after a night that will live long in the memory of the thousands who crammed the magnificent stadium until the early morning. The French greeted the final whistle with delirium. The Irish fell to the ground, inconsolable.

Their fans might not have colonised the place like they did in 2004 - the French Football Federation and the changed economic times had ensured that much - but those who were there sang all night with the passion of a contingent twice the size.

Whatever the travelling fans might have said beforehand, their hope had felt a little forlorn. How many truly believed a team with such a time-honoured aversion to vital away wins could overturn a 0-1 deficit against one of the world¿s best sides at their own ground?

All week the French press and their public had dripped self-confidence. Gone was the pretence of worry about the Irish spirit and proficiency with set pieces, replaced by a quiet certainty that their passage to South Africa was all but assured.

All that changed after 33 minutes, when Damien Duff crossed from the left for his captain Robbie Keane to slide the ball past the French goalkeeper with the composure of a kid on the street. It electrified the night. From three corners of the stadium there was silence. From the fourth, pandemonium. ¿Que sera sera,¿ came the call from the green ranks. From then on, the swagger was all Ireland¿s. Dunne was impassable, Doyle and Lawrence indefatigable and Duff every bit the creative dynamo of old. You could feel the unease rise in the stands. The French were rattled.

For 120 minutes, Giovanni Trapattoni paced anxiously along the touchline, gesticulating with the wild fervour of a man who might be provoked to get involved himself.

The French authorities thought there could be up to 15,000 Irish fans at last night¿s match. Until the French goal, it felt like becoming one of those nights that everyone in Ireland would one day claim to have witnessed.

From yesterday morning, thousands of the travelling Irish had fanned out across Paris, annexing pockets of streets and filling the air with the old ballads. At Place de Clichy, the traffic had moved at a crawl all afternoon as hundreds of green shirts spilled onto the streets, posing for pictures and singing so defiantly that they could be heard a mile away. How many would have guessed how close it would be?

And yet, and yet. Within 10 minutes of the whistle last night, the music had fallen quiet, the stadium was stilled and the French stands were all but empty. Those in the green corner didn¿t leave. They stayed put a while, staring out into the night, no doubt wondering what might have been.