Any soccer pro would have done the same

 

Hey, get over it! We’d have scored that way too given the chance... writes BRIAN O'CONNOR

MAYBE WITH the pantomime season upon us, it is only right to indulge in the battering of cartoon villains. But turning Thierry Henry into a bogeyman is as pathetic as it is ludicrous, and only proves how the gift that keeps on giving in this country is any excuse to indulge in martyred indignation.

Certainly judging by the outpourings that have followed Ireland’s regrettable exit from the World Cup, no more can we titter at any other nation’s emotional incontinence.

How we seem to enjoy the chance to feel sorry for ourselves: how wonderful is the collective urge to sink our fingers into a vast vat of self-pity and come up with them all-pruney and pious. Once again, little old Ireland has been “done”, victims of the French, Fifa, a seeding system that doesn’t care about little nations, and a Swedish referee whose only qualification was to have failed an eye test.

Whisper it – but there are plenty out there who are enjoying all this a helluva lot better than if the Irish soccer team were galloping on a veldt next summer.

Even the most tentative dip into the seething tide of broadcast fury yesterday meant being swept away in a tsunami of ill-informed flak, featuring Henry as cheat, thief, destroyer of dreams – a threat to society.

How weird it is to see a French footballer vilified like this when we have a home-grown political and business class whose real cheating and thieving have destroyed a lot more than dreams, and whose self-serving defensive cant is enough to prevent all but the lightest puff-balls of ack-ack fire?

Maybe football is serving as a lifeboat to carry us above the current economic and political awfulness, but to hear the airwaves dominated by diatribes against Henry was stomach-churning in its stupidity.

The Frenchman has had his entire career dismissed as bogus and unworthy on the back of a millisecond.

Henry, famous for his elegance on the pitch and inherent decency off it, has also been dismissed as a charlatan, a phoney whose dozen years at the forefront of the world game have been an exercise in pulling the wool over our eyes.

What codswallop.

Anyone who has ever played any kind of ball game knows how instinctive gestures can be. Even presuming that Henry’s second touch with his hand was deliberate doesn’t justify flinging the term “cheat” at him, which is loaded in its football connotations.

In reality, the likelihood is that Henry, quite literally, chanced his arm with the second touch, no doubt fully expecting the whistle to blow. That it didn’t is down to the referee and his assistants.

What Henry’s accusers would have us believe is that he should have called the referee’s attention to the handball himself. The example of golf is used where players call shots on themselves in what is portrayed as a sort of polo-shirted sporting utopia.

The difference, of course, is that golf is an individual game. If Tiger Woods calls a shot on himself he is impacting on Tiger Woods. Expecting the same from Henry in Wednesday night’s scenario in Paris is too far-fetched for words. No doubt, if France had gone out of the World Cup on penalties, his teammates and the entire French nation would have commended him on his sportsmanship – just as Robbie Keane would have been if places were reversed.

There is a scene in Blackadder Goes Forthwhen Stephen Fry’s General Melchett character is consumed with the search for German spies – “Filthy Hun weasels fighting their dirty, underhand war”. But his own British spies are “splendid fellows, brave heroes, risking life and limb for Blighty!”

RTÉ pundit John Giles pointed out the rather obvious importance of perspective in this matter just minutes after the match. So did his colleague Graeme Souness, who admitted any professional footballer worth his sale would have done the same in Henry’s position.

It may not be 100 per cent ethical, but it is the nature of the sporting beast.

Do rugby players call forward passes on themselves? Do GAA players, flowers of Irish manhood that they are, admit to off-the-ball punches and kicks? Is the world full of jockeys who own up that they are willing to put colleagues through the rails in order to win? And of course, cricketers always make the umpire’s job easy by walking when bowled out.

The problem on Wednesday night was that the officials fell down on the job. Claiming this was part of some large conspiracy is ridiculous. If the referee wanted to “do” Ireland, he had a perfect opportunity when Anelka was brought down in the penalty area.

What is so hard about admitting the obvious: the referee didn’t spot Henry’s handball, and didn’t get any help from his linesman?

That may be hard to swallow from an Irish perspective, but if not qualifying for the World Cup is the worst thing that happens to us before the year is out, then so be it.

What has been much harder to swallow has been the populist opportunism of our political masters in regard to possible replays.

Get over it, everyone, we’re out.

If we’d been able to secure the goal in the way the French did, we’d have done it too.

An old cliche is that sport builds character. Actually it’s more accurate to say that sport reveals character. What does this rush to blame say about ours?


Brian O’Connor is an Irish Timessports journalist and author

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