Friday, 20 November 2009

Irish eyes... not exactly smiling

What the Sun newspaper has dubbed 'The Hand of Frog' incident looks set to rumble on. Thierry Henry gave a pretty fulsome apology for the double-handball that, unsighted by the match officials, unjustly sent France through to the 2010 World Cup Finals this week, at the expense of the Republic of Ireland. I was watching the game in my local pub, and unsurprisingly everyone was pretty appalled. Only the bitter and twisted Roy Keane seems to have written the episode off as unworthy of concern.

Both Henry and his former manager and fellow Frenchman Arsene Wenger agree that a replay would be appropriate. FIFA are unlikely to relent on this, having made it clear by deciding to seed the playoffs (something they had not previously announced) that they want to see the biggest sides qualify for South Africa in order to fill their coffers and those of their sponsors. In this context, talk of "fair play" is a hollow sham.

Actually, there is a precedent here. Uzbekistan and Bahrain replayed a World Cup qualifier with FIFA sanction in 2005, after the referee encroached into the area when the Uzbeks had a first half penalty, and then gave a free kick to Bahrain. The difference is that the Henry incident concerns a wrong decision by an official, and the team who might be detrimentally effected are one of the 'big boys'. In football as in life, there's one law for the rich and one for the minnows.

Meanwhile, my admiration for Henry as a player remains undimmed. But his claim that his deliberate handball was 'instinct' and that it is up to the referee to see it not him to come clean at the time will not wash. Again, I doubt that he will receive more than a two- or three-match ban and a censure. By rights he should be barred from the group stage of the World Cup finals. A just punishment would be in his interests to, as this incident should not besmirch an otherwise deserved reputation for beautiful football and fairness.

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