The fierce public and media reaction to Thierry Henry’s infamous handball moment that helped France qualify for this summer’s World Cup finals was provoked by several factors.
One was the timing and the importance of the match – extra time in a World Cup play-off. Secondly, there was the brilliance and status of the player; Henry is a former World Cup winner, one of the great footballers of his generation and a man who has long traded on a reputation for grace and dignity.
Equally important, however, perhaps even more so, was the nature of the offence itself: handball. In fact, a calculated double handball that allowed Henry to control a cross spinning out of play and then pass for William Gallas to score the decisive goal against the Republic of Ireland.
The game is football; its first principle is that handling the ball is outlawed. That dictates everything about how the sport is played. Handle the ball – in doing so claiming one of the greatest prizes – and you strike a blow at the very heart of football.
That’s why Diego Maradona’s “Hand of God” goal in the 1986 World Cup quarter-final for Argentina against England created such anger.
Of course, there are more despicable acts in football – the deliberately reckless tackle that breaks an opponent’s leg, the elbow smashed in the face of a rival player.
But those cases still won’t shock and outrage the world like the Maradona and Henry handballs.
The day after the Henry incident, there was nothing else sporting people were talking about. Everybody had a view; well, everyone except FIFA.
The initial response of the world’s governing body was laughable and grossly insulting. The match report on the official FIFA website did not mention the handball, trying to pretend the clearest case of cheating in many years had simply not happened. Eventually, this was amended after a deluge of public protests, but the pathetic charade had made FIFA look absurd in the modern information age.
FIFA subsequently refused to consider the possibility of a replay that was demanded by the Irish FA and a French government minister, and also suggested by Henry himself – once the player had been struck by a tidal wave of criticism. An unnamed spokesman – how bad is that for a global organisation? – explained it would cause chaos to allow a replay because it would set a precedent that would lead to hundreds of future demands for a re-match to a game decided by a controversial incident.
That’s understandable, but wrong. In rare cases in the past, a team that has profited from cheating has volunteered a replay – as Arsenal did in an FA Cup tie a few years ago.
This was a course of action that the French federation, to its shame, would not countenance. It was content, like so many people in football these days, to take refuge in the widespread culture of cheating, to blame the referee for missing the incident and to selfishly accept the rewards of a blatant injustice.
Fair play? Why do that when nobody else would? Even the Ireland players refused to blame Henry personally – living and losing by the professional footballer’s code of dishonour.
The challenge for football, and for FIFA specifically, in the wake of the Henry affair, is to properly attack the culture of cheating.
For years FIFA has treated us to the sham of a public campaign for fair play that has no punitive teeth to back it up. That must change. The rogues on the pitch must be hounded out.
I agree with FIFA that using video technology during matches would be a nightmare, creating far more problems than it might solve. But TV replays should, and must, be used for retrospective punishment of players who have obviously cheated, whether or not it is seen at the time by the match referee.
There would be a clear and strong set of sanctions for all offences – from physical assault, to feigning injury, to diving, to a handball like Henry’s.
When players know in advance that they will receive a long ban if cameras expose their violence or their deception, then the culture of cheating will begin to wither. It will wither because of public contempt, and because managers and team-mates will not tolerate self-inflicted long suspensions for key players.
This is a battle that won’t be won in a day, a week or a month. But give it a couple of years of concerted scrutiny and punishment, and the change in the mentality of the way football is played would be dramatic – and totally for the good of the game.