Thierry Henry’s handball a subject that will not go away

French media begin to focus on Irish team’s efforts to get revenge for 2009

Personally, I had stopped complaining about the injustice of it all by the next morning but almost seven years on the name Thierry Henry is on everybody's lips again. Fundamentally, it seems like ancient history but then even I can't resist the little ironies like the fact that the sports hall the FAI is using in Versailles as a media centre is generally used for, you guessed it, handball.

When we were here in December for the draw and the magazine France Football appeared to trace all of their national team's recent ill-fortunes back to the events of November 18th, 2009, I was sort of amused but I have been far more taken aback by the level of interest amongst the French media in the immediate aftermath of Ireland's win over Italy.

Several papers, including L'Equipe, featured prominent mentions of the opportunity Ireland now have for revenge but I wondered whether the notion had even crossed the minds of Martin O'Neill's players.

What happened at the Stade de France that night was a fairly run of the mill refereeing error, a terrible one but a refereeing error nevertheless. I spoke briefly to Henry immediately after the game and he said so, I spoke to the Swedish referee Martin Hansson the following summer in South Africa and he said so and countless Irish players have more or less agreed during the years since.


Much blame

Certainly I can recall very few of them attributing much blame to the striker that night. They had doubtless pulled, pushed, dived or handled a thousand times and gotten away with it.

Like it or lump it, if the ref doesn’t spot something, they act “like a professional” and carry on. Irish teams have been coming out on both sides of such decisions as long as they have been playing international matches and it is actually hard to recall somebody being so widely vilified for anything so trivial in the modern game.

What followed in Ireland has been far more interesting than the handball incident itself with the buffoonery of the “33rd team” suggestion, the willingness of the FAI, then in a pretty tight corner financially, to seek to exploit the situation (despite the obvious ramifications of successfully arguing that refereeing errors might be actionable) and ultimately the scandal of the €5 million paid by Fifa to the association in an attempt to make the whole sorry story go away.

Even the cash settlement, though, was primarily a story because of the laughable hypocrisy it highlighted in John Delaney's position that Sepp Blatter was far too carefree with Fifa's money. He tried to argue that there were greater, wider (unspecified) legal concerns arising out of it all and went on TV to say as much, all the while pointing to a legal agreement between the two football organisations that made it pretty clear it was, to heavily sanitise the phrase: go away money.

And so the real significance of that night from an international perspective is that it provided a glaring example for its proponents of the benefits of video technology while from an Irish viewpoint, unless you bought his “it was a good deal for Irish football,” line, it ultimately did lasting damage to the standing the association’s central figure.

As for the Irish people’s view of the French team, I told one of the local reporters who wanted to talk with me about the subject yesterday, it probably pretty much recovered after the World Cup in South Africa where a colleague from another paper had the chirpy task of asking players after one game how they could sleep at night after getting to the tournament in the way they had.

The rest of us, meanwhile, took a slightly juvenile pleasure in the poor results and utterly shambolic statement from a bus incident.

Me? I retained a soft spot both for the team and for Raymond Domenech who had been very helpful with regard to an interview some time before.

Out for revenge

As for the players, the reporters ask, are they out for revenge. Repeatedly, I tell them that I doubt it and that emulating the team of Italia 90 by reaching a tournament quarter-final is likely to be far higher on their priority list. With that, a colleague passes by and chips in with the news that “revenge” was the first thing Wes Hoolahan mentioned in the mixed zone on Wednesday night.

So there; what do I know? Let’s go get the cheating gits.

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Emmet Malone

Emmet Malone

Emmet Malone is Work Correspondent at The Irish Times