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The Sporting Trial of Thierry Henry

Handing It to France

by BINOY KAMPMARK

It was not something to be proud of.  I’m not going to party.

–Bixente Lizarazu on French qualification for South Africa 2010, TV Channel TF1, Nov 20, 2009

That much air time, and column space, is being given to this issue might be seen as worrying.  But football matches have a habit of transfixing global audiences.  No sport attracts more money or tribal interest.  The largest sporting event on the planet is FIFA’s World Cup, which is set to take place again in South Africa next year. 

Should France’s Thierry Henry have done the gentlemanly thing and repudiated his neurotic, basketball like act which led to the sinking of the Republic of Ireland in the 103rd minute?  This was certainly no small incident, touching on qualification for World Cup qualification.  Surely no incident since the ‘hand of God’ intervention of Argentina’s Diego Maradona against England in the 1986 World Cup could have proved so upsetting or controversial.

Discomforted football viewers may see Henry’s behaviour as blight requiring swift removal.  Henry has now joined calls that a replay should take place, having initially been coy as to his role in the double handball.  ‘Blame the incautious referee’, he seemed to be suggesting.  Such a move, if anything, has attracted accusations of insincerity.  Nor has the Swedish contingent refereeing the match been spared, attacked by the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet.  Martin Hansson, and his linesmen, had ‘forfeited its right to continue to take charge of major international matches’ (LA Times, Nov 20). 

Henry’s career risks being irreparably harmed by his imprudence on the field.  The Irish are up in arms, flooding social networking sites and other media with indignant calls for replays.  Protests are being planned against the French embassy in Ireland.  Irish captain Robbie Keane quipped that Henry ‘almost caught [the ball] and walked into the net with it’ (LA Times, Nov 20).  The French feel a sense of burning shame. Their manager is unpopular.  The team is disliked, an under-performing, lack luster unit that has done much to lose fans.   The crown of the glamorous 1998 team is not just tarnished but discarded in the mist of a distant past. 

Some sports place moral obligations on players to own up, a point made strongly by former English footballer Gary Lineker.  Snooker and golf fall into these categories.  These sports are, however, individual pursuits, rather than collective enterprises.  One can only really foul oneself in such instances.  Henry’s confession would have erased the goal and jeopardized the team effort.  Then again, in losing the match, he may well have edged himself into the pantheon of all-too-few fair-minded footballers.

Henry’s individual conduct has a broader dimension to it.  Terms such as fairplay in a gigantic, moneyed sport have come to be seen as necessary nostrums for the fan base.  Football organizations have a nasty habit of foiling the underdog, making pathways to qualification seem like mine-ridden obstacle courses.  Keane was certainly left in no doubt that Sepp Blatter of FIFA and Michel Platini of UEFA were ‘texting each other, delighted with the result’.  Fair play has been happily ditched by business interests. 

The characterization by Keane, which gives one the impression that the football world is divided by brave proletarian strugglers in the face of arrogant toffs and aristocratic bullies, is a touch stretched.  Incidents of bad sportsmanship do happen, even between the superpowers of football.  Again, Maradona’s 1986 foray into football controversy should not be forgotten there.

Besides, international footballers tend to be cut from the same cloth these days.  The modern breed of player is blooded in the same internationalized leagues, where second and third grade leagues matter little.  The national flag is less important than the premier club insignia.  Loyalty to purse, Mammon and the chairman of a major league club takes precedence. There are huge financial implications. 

The argument for a replay is not as strong as it seems.  Errors are the natural province of any sport, and punishing them in this manner might unsettle an already fallible game.  Heartfelt apologies and regret may be better than a replay, and that should be left to the maligned Henry and the French team.  Otherwise we might see the rather unpleasant spectacle of a mortal Maradona stepping up again to confront his English opponents in a ghastly rematch.  No one surely wants that.

BINOY KAMPMARK was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email: bkampmark@gmail.com