I Have Forgiven Henry

This weekend I’m going to London to see my favourite football team, Arsenal, take on their fierce rivals in the North London derby at the Emirates Stadium. I’m quite excited about visiting the Emirates for the first time as I’ve previously only ever seen the Gunners play at Highbury and Old Trafford. The above picture shows a detail from a mural on the outside of the new stadium that features many of the club’s best players. Liam Brady and Thierry Henry have more reason to be on the mural than most. They never played together, of course, but they were star players in their respective Arsenal sides and were also big favourites with Gooners everywhere. I would imagine that they know each other quite well as Liam Brady has been a most successful Head of Youth Development at the club during Arsene Wenger’s managerial reign, a period that coincided with Henry’s record-breaking stint in front of goal

Of course, the two men found themselves on opposite sides of the footballing fence on this date twelve months ago, as Ireland took on France for a place at the 2010 World Cup finals in South Africa. Brady was giving Giovanni Trapattoni a hand on the sideline while Henry was trying to be the main man for France on the pitch. On the previous Saturday, Ireland had lost by the only goal of the game in Dublin in what had been a pretty poor match. Even though there was only one goal in it, there were very few people who felt that Ireland had any chance of advancing past the perceived threat from France. In the end, Trapattoni decided to throw caution to the wind and his team attacked the French team on their own turf. Robbie Keane gave Ireland a deserved lead after half an hour and his team held on to force the game into extra time. Ireland were unlucky not to put the game beyond the French after 90 minutes and paid the price near the end of extra time when Henry handed France an equaliser by putting the ball on a plate for William Gallas to head it into goal from close range

There’s an old Scouse expression for handball that goes back to the days when footballs were big leather things that were tied together with laces. The expression was “he could have had the laces out twice” (try saying it in a Scouse accent for better effect). That phrase was certainly appropriate at the Stade de France last year as replays showed that the French captain had used his hand to control the ball twice in two quick movements to drop it onto his foot before crossing for Gallas to score. Ireland were unable to get a second goal and it would be the French players who would be going to South Africa while the Irish would have more time to spend with their families. The aftermath of the match led to condemnation of the French team and especially their captain, who seemed to rub salt into Irish wounds by sitting down on the grass and having a casual chat with the Irish captain after the final whistle. The anger amongst Irish sports fans spread around the footballing world as other nations also felt that the Irish team were hard done by

Of course, Henry’s handball hadn’t knocked Ireland out of the World Cup on its own. It was not a certainty that Ireland would be victorious in an eventual penalty competition and some of the Irish defense was guilty of waiting for the referee’s whistle rather than playing the ball. Some opprobrium was placed on the match officials, but Henry was clever enough to shield his touches from the referee behind him and the assistant on the far side of the field. At first, I completely blamed Thierry Henry for what had happened. It wasn’t as if the ball had slightly brushed his hand. The two touches he made to control the ball were deliberate and would surely have been illegal even in basketball. What made it worse for me was that Henry had been one of the best (if not the best) players I had ever seen play in an Arsenal jersey. I enjoyed all the goals he scored and the many he selflessly created for his teammates. I was also a big fan of the fun he brought to his play and the sometimes unorthodox steps he took to get a goal. In an instant, however, I had lost all respect for the player for his cheating and even more so for the man and his failure to admit his mistake

My anger lessened somewhat when he did eventually admit his error in the days that followed and apologised for helping to cheat the Irish team out of a chance to make it to the World Cup. He even tried to convince his national team to offer to replay the game. I guess, like many Irish people, I achieved some sort of catharsis in June this year when Mexico beat France to all but end France’s chance of progressing in the tournament. I almost felt sorry for the team when their World Cup turned into a farce as the players revolted and South Africa also beat them in both teams’ final match. And, so, as I embark on my journey to the Emirates, I have decided to forgive Thierry Henry for failing to observe the laws of the game against Ireland twelve months ago. Cheating has become a big part of sport in general and football in particular and the only thing that surprises me is that players don’t cheat even more. Footballers have become adept at fooling the match officials, but not the cameras. The financial stakes have become so high and the punishment for cheating so slight that it is now part and parcel of the game. It is only when the people in charge of the game have the balls to do something about it that cheating will be less prevalent in the sport. Still, it’s surely no surprise that cheating exists in sport as it exists on all facets of modern life. To finish up, here are a three of the many songs about cheating and one of the fewer ones about forgiveness

Cheat – The Clash

Cheater – Bob Kuban & the In-Men

Your Cheating Heart (Hank Williams cover) – James Brown

Forgive Me -Ida Maria