French fans struggle to accept win

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PARIS --- Thank you, Thierry Henry. If nothing else, your cheating against Ireland has shown that ordinary folks -- those who are passionate about soccer and those who are not -- remain, by and large, decent.

France captain Thierry Henry admitted to committing a hand ball violation that set up the goal that gave his country a victory over Ireland and a berth in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.  Associated Press
Associated Press
France captain Thierry Henry admitted to committing a hand ball violation that set up the goal that gave his country a victory over Ireland and a berth in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.

In the wake of the shameful hand ball by France's captain that set up the goal that put his nation into the World Cup, it would have been easy to draw depressing parallels with our troubled era.

Fraud on Wall Street, dishonesty in government and, on a chill night in Paris, deviousness on the field of play -- a place where, ideally, those human weaknesses are meant to be set to one side.

Deceit is everywhere, the spirit of fair play is dead, we could have concluded before deciding that, since everyone else is doing it, we should start cheating, too. On our taxes or in a card game with our kids.

But no. Although this won't be of any consolation to the Irish, the silver lining in Henry's now infamous "Hand of Gaul" is that there are still large numbers of people who refuse to see glory in victory obtained by underhand means.

Yes, cheating is everywhere. Encouragingly, acceptance of it is not.

For proof, look no further than Henry's native France. Instead of boisterous celebrations, the way in which France denied Ireland a place in the World Cup has triggered deep malaise. Supporters of Algeria's team, which qualified on the same night as France last Wednesday with a playoff defeat of Egypt, took to the streets of Paris in droves, waving flags and honking horns. Fans of France were notably absent.

Pollsters subsequently found that a healthy majority of those asked frowned on Henry's hand ball and that most have little or no faith that the 1998 world champions will now go on to repeat in South Africa next July.

Most tellingly, nearly half of those polled said the match against Ireland should have been replayed -- in other words, they would have preferred that France run the risk of not qualifying for the World Cup than win in the way that it did. And finally, in France at least, support for the introduction of video replays to catch such trickery has become overwhelming.

Basically, in illegally using his hand and in celebrating after the goal as if he had done nothing wrong, Henry went against the grain of a nation that has long held itself up as an example of a place where injustice is fought and fundamental values are cherished.

As his former teammate on the France squad, Bixente Lizarazu, told Henry during a radio interview Monday night: "You are paying for the fact that France has always given lessons of morality to everyone else."

"It's the boomerang effect," Lizarazu added. "We have qualified for the World Cup with a hand ball, which isn't part of the game, through cheating, and that is why we are being made to pay. And the person paying most of all is you."

Only, Henry isn't really paying. Sure, he suffered bad headlines and became a figure of scorn and derision for fans in Ireland. But a stain on his reputation is as far as it goes.

FIFA refused a replay, hiding behind its laws that say referees' decisions during games are final. The French Football Federation hid behind FIFA, saying there was nothing it could do. And Henry hid behind his belated apologies and statement that a replay would be the "fairest solution," which cost him nothing because the decision didn't rest with him. Together, it all amounted to a collective washing of hands.

Teammates past and present have also sprung to his defense, proof that although fans and soccer aren't quite at the point of divorce over the moralities of Henry's actions, they are no longer blissfully wedded, either.

"I got a lot of calls from players, from managers, from people that I had lost contact with who supported me, who said that all of this was nonsense and that it had gone too far," Henry told Lizarazu. "I've moved on to other things."

But the fans haven't.


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