Tempest over Thierry Henry's handball in Ireland-France soccer match: Get over it.
Irish fans should give up their hopes of a rematch and simply accept, no matter how much it hurts, that France won by breaking the rules.
London — In the past week, the first-ever president of Europe was appointed, the momentum for December's Copenhagen conference on climate change gathered pace, and new figures revealed that the recession is officially over in most European Union countries.
Yet what have we Europeans been hotly discussing around water-coolers, in pubs and cafes, and on social-networking sites? We've been obsessing over "Le Hand of God" – the media moniker for Thierry Henry's illicit use of his hand to control the ball during the World Cup qualifier game between France and Ireland Nov. 18.
Ireland was 1-0 up in the game that would decide whether France or Ireland would get to the World Cup – soccer's most prestigious competition – in South Africa in 2010. Then, in the 103rd minute, Mr. Henry, a striker for the French team, tapped the ball twice with his hand before passing it (with his foot) to fellow French player William Gallas. Mr. Gallas scored, France tied the game, and because of an earlier victory over the Irish, won the contest.
Ireland and its "green army" of fans – which includes me – were reduced to blubbering wrecks, our pain made all the more intense by the fact that we lost as a result of a French player's flouting of soccer's rules.
But it's what happened next, after what many are now describing as a "crime against football," that is most striking. The Henry incident has morphed into a full-blown diplomatic row, with Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen calling on French President Nicolas Sarkozy to organize a rematch. Mr. Sarkozy said he didn't want to play referee, but he did apologize to Mr. Cowen and has since pushed for soccer to adopt video-replay technology. Sarkozy's regret is matched by his countrymen: one poll showed that 80 percent of French respondents felt the team's win was undeserved.
But such contrition is of little comfort to the Irish. Hundreds of Irish fans protested outside the French Embassy in Dublin on Saturday. Some are talking about boycotting French wine or Gillette shaving products (which Henry endorses). More than 420,000 people have signed the Facebook-based petition to have the game replayed.
Some psychologists even believe that Ireland's loss delivered a "psychic shock" to the Irish people, making them think they are "perpetually doomed to failure." Soccer pundits and officials are using the Henry incident as an argument for changing some of the rules of the game and introducing video-replay equipment so that referees can rewatch controversial moments and make "fairer decisions."
This has all gone officially too far. I am as gutted as every other fan of Ireland over what happened last Wednesday. But the obsession with the Henry Handball, the transformation of it into a diplomatic, psychic, and existential incident, threatens to harm soccer – what we Europeans refer to as "the Beautiful Game" – far more than what Henry himself did.
Yes, Henry touched the ball with his hand, which is forbidden in soccer. Yes, if the referee had seen it happen he would have disallowed Gallas's subsequent goal and given Ireland a free kick to restart the game. But he didn't see it, and Henry got away with it. And that's life. Or as the French say: c'est la vie. In a sport such as soccer – a speedy, quick-witted, sometimes rough game, where it's simply impossible for the ref to see everything – we have to accept that every now and then rule-breaking, and even a little bit of cheating, will occur.
Indeed, in relation to the Henry Handball, the better thing – both morally and sports-wise – is to accept what happened and move on. We now have a situation when the Irish fans' (understandable) feeling of grievance, and Irish politicians' high-level campaigning, threatens to damage soccer way more than Henry did. If there was to be a rematch on the basis of the referee's bad decision, which is unheard of in European soccer, then that would open the door to endless demands for replaying controversial games.
Every time there was a hint of a handball, or a goal being scored by a player who was "offside," or a foul that the referee failed to see, then players and fans would demand that the game be replayed. Nothing would ever be final. No one could ever really "win" in a climate in which a game could be staged again at the merest hint of controversy.
And in soccer, as in so many other highly competitive team sports, finality is crucial; the declaration of a winner is of the utmost importance. Restaging this game – a remote possibility, as appeals have been officially rejected – would set a dangerous precedent, turning soccer into a bear pit of postmatch accusations and demands for replays in which no one would ever be sure who the winner is.
Also, introducing video-replay equipment would make soccer duller. Such equipment might be well suited to sports that frequently stop and start – like tennis, cricket, or American football or baseball – but it has no place in a fiery, fast-paced game like soccer. Having to wait for the ref to rewatch every disputed moment would diminish the players' focus and the soccer experience for us spectators.
No, we simply have to accept, however much it hurts, that France won by breaking the rules. Accepting that and moving on is a small price to pay for keeping the game of soccer – with all its speed, emotion, and unpredictability – intact.