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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.

By Brendan O'Neill / November 23, 2009


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.

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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.