One night in Paris: Henry’s stray hand, the 33rd team and the great Fifa shakedown
Sporting Controversies: Reverberations from 2009 World Cup playoff still rattle Irish football
A videograb of Thierry Henry’s handball that led to William Gallas’s goal during the World Cup playoff, second leg against the Republic of Ireland at the Stade de France in November 2009. Photograph: Sky Sports
Something was wrong. Something more than the fact that Ireland had just conceded a goal that threatened to end their hopes of making it to the World Cup. That much was obvious as Shay Given led the furious protests of players who were rushing towards the Swedish referee Martin Hansson.
In the Stade de France’s enormous press box, which seemed just then like it was half a world away, print reporters everywhere clambered over colleagues and desks, then raced towards the television screens of the broadcast section in the hope of catching a replay.
Those who made it to one in time, told the rest: Thierry Henry’s blatant control of the ball with his hand had been a key element in the build-up to William Gallas’s goal. Out on the pitch, Hansson was not to be so lucky. VAR was years away yet and the fact that the events now unfolding would play a significant part in deciding the debate over its introduction was of little use to him.
The “scandal” aspect of what actually happened on November 18th, 2009 in St Denis has always seemed so overblown. The events, though, would ultimately give rise to a pretty decent sized one; the full detail of which would not be clarified until John Delaney gave two car-crash interviews to RTÉ radio some six years later.
Back in Paris, half the problem was that Henry wanted to have his cake and eat it. The French striker, who cultivated a good guy image, passed up the opportunity to do “the right thing” by revealing to the referee what he had just failed to spot but then wanted, it seemed, to tell everyone else how terrible he felt about it all.
Luis Suarez would have spent his post-match interview with Irish television provocatively kissing the hand that had offended while holding a bottle of champagne in the other. Henry sat in the centre circle confessing his misdeeds to an Irish defender who clearly didn’t want to hear about it.
“I was like thinking, ‘what do you want me to do about it? You should have said that 20 minutes ago’,” Richard Dunne would remember quite a few years later. “I can’t see the benefit in someone coming over and saying ‘I handled it’. I think it was Mick McCarthy who said I should have boxed him . . . but as soon as you box them it’s like ‘no, I shouldn’t have done that’.”
Dunne was one of quite a few Irish players to say afterwards that, however upset they were at being out of the World Cup despite having played so well in the game, they knew deep down that they almost certainly would have done precisely the same thing in the circumstances. A majority of the neutrals who had ever impeded an opponent for payment seemed to feel much the same way.
Not too many of the Irish were too philosophical about it that night and having worked for a couple of hours at the stadium then made my way back into town with colleagues to meet my wife, who was at the game with friends, I got my first real sense of just how badly the fans were taking it. For quite a few years afterwards we weren’t far short of “fair play fries” territory in our household.
As the city’s Algerian fans loudly celebrated their side’s qualification all around us, I made the mistake of suggesting that, terrible as it all was, there was little point in getting so worked up about it. It was done.
In fact, the real action was only about to begin.
Everyone expected the FAI to kick up about it in whatever way they could, of course, and sure enough they got on to both Fifa and the French federation the following day looking for a replay. More surprisingly, the government got on the case in a serious way too with then Minister for Sport Martin Cullen writing to Sepp Blatter and Brian Cowen taking Nicolas Sarkozy aside to discuss the matter at an EU summit. The French president’s response, as reported, might best be characterised as a Gallic “Gimme a break”.
Blatter was rather more disparaging than that a couple of weeks later as he addressed delegates at the opening of the Soccerex football business event in Johannesburg ahead of a Fifa egm at which the controversy was to be discussed. He recounted a meeting with the FAI the previous Friday in Zurich.
“They have asked,” he said, “very humbly ‘can’t we be team number 33 at the World Cup?’ They have asked for that, really.”
I remember being pointed in the direction of what he had said by The Irish Times sports editor at the time and his obvious deflation when we met again the next day. I had taken the quotes from a written transcript not realising that a video was in wide circulation and so I missed the obviously mocking tone, the smile as he delivered the punchline, the laughter then applause from his audience.
Still, I was fairly content that Blatter was not, as John Delaney would quickly claim, mocking Ireland, but rather poking fun at the FAI chief executive himself. The formal version of the association’s 33rd team request was quietly withdrawn before the egm but, having been very publicly embarrassed, Delaney, it seems, threatened to make a rumpus in the run-up to Blatter’s bid for re-election and the Swiss is said to have uttered the magic words: “What is it going to take for the FAI to f**k off?”
Five million euro was apparently the answer.
The association, already in the early stages of what would be a decade-long financial crisis under Delaney, glossed over the payment in its own accounts but it came to light in July of 2014 when an unnamed source gave the basic details to The Sun, which published them on the day of the 2014 World Cup final.
During the week that followed there were a couple of lengthy interviews with Delaney in the paper. They were written by the same journalist who had broken the payment story.
The FAI declined to comment on the money at the time but almost a year after that, Delaney was asked about it by Gavin Jennings after having gone on Morning Ireland to talk about the latest Fifa election and the need to get rid of Blatter.
His hypocrisy on the subject around that time was regarded by many as hilarious given the way he was widely known to be running the FAI. He complained about the widespread patronage, the way in which Blatter used the federation’s money as though it were his own. “He operates like an emperor,” he said. “He thinks that Fifa is his own country.”
More significantly, though, he effectively confirmed the €5 million when asked about it then went further by confirming the amount the following week when doing an interview on the Ray D’Arcy show that seemed to catch most senior FAI staffers completely by surprise.
The reaction, not just in Ireland but internationally, was scathing as the public stand he had taken over the Henry handball incident was exposed for the private shakedown it had been. It had been driven by desperation, of course, but he could hardly admit that when he kept on claiming publicly that all was well at the association.
In a hastily arranged television interview the following evening, he sought to undo the damage, suggesting a legal basis for an action while pointing at documents that flatly contradicted the detail of the claims he was making.
Delaney, of course, was no lawyer but he knew how to shake a tree, as one FAI official once put it, as we would see when he was being shown the door by an organisation he had run almost into the ground but still insisted on one final pay out.
As for the football, Sean St Ledger expressed the fear that night in Paris that France might well go on to win the World Cup. He needn’t have worried.
Henry and co crashed and burned in the group stages and the players made fools of themselves with a comical coup against manager Raymond Domenech. As it all unfolded they were followed by a small posse of Irish reporters whose task was essentially to relay a nation’s sense of schadenfreude.
On the opening night in Cape Town, when Uruguayan defender Mauricio Victorino blocked a Henry shot late in their game that might have got the French off to a winning start, we were all there as Neil O’Riordan asked Patrice Evra afterwards if he thought it was karma after what had happened in the playoff.
“We are at the World Cup now?” asked the French skipper, clearly bemused. “What are you asking me about the playoff for?”
“I’m Irish,” replied Neil, both men laughing by this point. “What else am I going to ask you about?”
The curse of the Stade de France
The Frenchman won the title that season with Barcelona then left for America and the New York Red Bulls. He would not win any more significant silverware as a player. His career as a manager started back at his former club Monaco in October 2018 but he lasted only three months before being fired. He now coaches in Canada.
The then French manager stood by his striker and rejected calls for a replay. The World Cup was a disaster for him, however, with the team taking just one point from three games. A row between the manager and Nicolas Anelka, meanwhile, ended with the player being thrown out of the squad, and, ultimately, the team refusing to leave their bus at a training session. He left his role after the tournament and subsequently became manager of Brittany, an unofficial representative team that almost never plays games.
John Delaney would, as it happens, receive the best part of €5 million from the FAI in salary and various other benefits during the decade that followed the game in Paris but his tenure was eventually ended by a string of revelations regarding the association’s financial affairs and his management of it. It is unclear whether he has since availed of one of the many better paid job offers he used talk about being open to him when he was still at the association.
The former PR man was president of Fifa for 17 years and looked to stay on for longer before the US authorities started to arrest quite a few of the federation’s senior officials. Many expected him to him to end up in prison himself but despite various allegations, he has never been charged with any offences in relation to the widespread corruption that characterised his time in charge. He is, however, currently serving a six-year ban from all football activities.
The Swedish referee said he cried in the dressingroom after realising the scale of the error he had made. A newspaper analysed the angles and argued that both he and his assistant, Fredrik Nilsson, were unsighted due to Irish players being in their way. Not everyone was quite so forgiving. Most of the players involved blamed him and he blamed them although he was quite dignified about it. The incident all but ended his top-level international career. Having overseen the Confederations Cup final a few months earlier he was only used as a fourth official at the World Cup in South Africa.