Henry and hand ball: why this fuss?

There were cheats in the old Olympic Games. There are cheats by the dozen in Test cricket, the Premier League and the weekly tennis tournaments across the globe. So why did football make so much fuss about the hand ball offence by Thierry Henry of France? By Ted Corbett.

If you are a sportsman you will cheat. It is such a clear rule of life there ought to be a special prize for the masters of deception.

Your first naughtiness might be the time you play a game of cards with your first-born; but it is just as likely to be in a World Cup final. Yes, there are noble souls who would no more cheat than steal the baby’s milk but as a rule, cheating, g amesmanship and taking advantage are the way of sporting life.

To play is to perform underhand tricks, to pick up the ball when it should lie on the ground, to edge the outswinger into the slips and then, looking angel innocent, pretend you never put your bat near the ball.

Some players — and I am not going to name them because, the tender little souls might be upset — act as rogues every time they pull on their sporting gear.

They hack at their opponents ankles, tear the seam to pieces, appeal without due cause and fail to find their lost ball until — miracle of miracles — it appears in a direct line with the green.

It is why we have referees, linesmen, umpires and adjudicators. Their main job is to see that the cheats do not prosper, that they sometimes have to leave the field and on many occasions miss half a dozen games to teach them a lesson.

There were cheats in the old Olympic Games. Ancient Greek wrestlers who spread grease on their bodies were flogged as soon as their crime was discovered.

No doubt there were cheats in the horrible lions v humans sporting events in the Coliseum and there are cheats by the dozen in Test cricket, the Premier League and the weekly tennis tournaments across the globe.

So why did football make so much fuss about the hand ball offence by Thierry Henry of France in the World Cup qualifying match against the Republic of Ireland?

Partly, in this country at any rate, because the Irish are near neighbours, because we love the under-dogs and because there had been rumours before the match that the game’s bosses wanted France, and certainly not Ireland, in the finals next summer.

We all had our eyes on the referee — Martin Hansson, referred as “The Swedish Referee” throughout by the commentators — but in fact he had a decent game, even-handed and fair. Right until the moment Henry controlled the ball with his left hand and tapped it across for the decisive goal of the match.

All beyond the sight of "The Swedish Referee".

Result: all wrong for the sentimental who wanted Ireland to win, but the right score line for sports writers who filled their pages and their screens for the next many days arguing that the match should be replayed, that Henry, once an honourable attacking forward for Arsenal should spend the rest of his natural life behind bars, that we should declare war on France and ask the United Nations to take control of world football.

I exaggerate slightly but that may be because I find myself in the strange position of agreeing only with a former Irish defender Roy Keane, now manager of Ipswich but a very odd guy indeed.

He says the Irish nation — some marched on the French Embassy in Dublin at one stage — should forget the whole incident and their failure to make it to South Africa.

If they had scored the goals that were on offer they would have sewn up the match much earlier, he said.

Mr. Keane grew to manhood under the influence of another bizarre man, that eccentric manager Brian Clough, was a major part of the triumphant Manchester United of the 1990s, retired to manage Sunderland where he quit in the middle of what seemed to many of us to be a successful term in office.

Why? Don’t even ask. You may remember he flew home after a dispute with the Irish manager during the World Cup in Japan and Korea. We tolerant British sports fans shrug our shoulders and say “Oh, yes, but he is Irish” in a most politically incorrect way.

On this occasion Mr. Keane is right. As another famous manager pointed out to me many years ago football matches — just like tennis sets, cricket Tests, and Rugby internationals — should be won on the pitch, not by quoting from the rule book.

By a rare coincidence Alex Higgins, a Irishman rogue, was scrupulous in declaring his own fouls, polite in assessing the performances of rivals and sometimes surprisingly honest.

One England captain who reigned almost a century ago, used to rip the seam apart so roughly that young cricketers hated fielding when he bowled; their hands were cut to pieces. Another seam ripper became an international umpire who was astonishingly straightforward about his ability to turn a new, hard cricket ball into a swinging, swerving missile. He could do so using one hand only.

I heard an Australian captain say that he warned his own fielders not to claim catches taken on the half volley. “How would you like it to happen to you?” he used to ask.

Finally there was a newspaperman who told me he had been hailed in the street after the county he covered had been badly defeated.

“Hey,” shouted one of their bowlers, “isn’t it time you learnt something about the game. You said it was cloud cover that caused the ball to swing.”

“Well, what was the truth then?” the reporter asked.

“I got my fingers into the seam, didn’t I?” said that desperado grinning at his success in fooling his critic.

I suppose he deserves an award for his honesty.