Thursday, November 19, 2009

Putting the Ire in Ireland

American sports fans almost got to know Thierry Henry because of a Gillette commercial in which he appeared in 2007 with Tiger Woods and Roger Federer.

Almost, but not quite.

Henry was replaced in the Gillette spot last year by New York Yankees captain Derek Jeter.


American audiences did not recognize Henry, a black French soccer star.

Outside of the U.S. and Canada, Henry still appears in the Gillette spot.

Anonymity is something Henry (pronounced AHN-ree) might prefer today.

Instead, he is Public Enemy No. 1 in Ireland because of a hand-aided goal in a World Cup qualifying match yesterday that will send France to the world’s biggest sporting event instead of Ireland.

“Yes, the ball touched my hand,” Henry admitted to reporters. “But I’m not the ref.”

Henry is right. The referee should have disallowed the goal.

But Henry’s answer will never sit well with the Irish, or with anyone who wants athletes to be sportsmen.

Henry cheated. The ball didn’t hit his hand by mistake.

That Henry got away with it does not justify the act.

The ball went from Henry’s left hand to his right foot and across the goalmouth to teammate William Gallas who scored to give France a 1-1 tie—and a 2-1 edge in goal differential in the two matches against Ireland.

That is why France, the 2002 World Cup champions, is going to South Africa for the 2010 Cup and Ireland is going home kicking and screaming.

“Outrageous!” “Disgraceful!” “Cheat!”

Those are the some of nicer headlines in the international media because of L’Affaire Henry.

This is, quite simply, the biggest sports story in the world outside of North America.

Here, we call the sport soccer. The rest of civilization calls it football.

Ireland’s justice minister is calling on FIFA, soccer’s world governing body, to replay the match.

To do otherwise, he argues, is to officially sanction cheating.

A replay would be the fairest way to decide matters. Either that, or resume the match with France throwing in the ball in Ireland’s end at roughly the point when the tainted goal occurred.

But don’t expect either to happen.

Germany didn’t get a do-over in the 1986 World Cup final after losing to Argentina on Diego Maradona’s infamous “Hand of God” goal.

That Henry readily admitted touching the ball yesterday doesn’t make him a better sportsman than Maradona.

Henry had little choice. Sports fans around the globe have seen Henry’s sleight-of-hand frame by frame, in super-slow motion, from multiple angles.

Now, FIFA has no choice but to use video replay technology in the World Cup.

But only for goals, as the National Hockey League does.

Not for offside calls. Not to hand out yellow cards or red cards retroactively for infractions missed by the referee.

But there’s no way TV viewers should know more about what’s happening in a World Cup match than the referee on the field.

Can you imagine the international outcry if the World Cup was awarded on a goal that would have been overturned by video replay?

Given the outsized passion of soccer fans, lives could be lost.

At least some good should come out of L’Affaire Henry…albeit not for Ireland. Alas, the luck of the Irish has run out.

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