Friday 21 October 2016

Thierry Henry's handball was shameful – but FAI’s actions were betrayal

Henry Winter

Published 05/06/2015 | 02:30

Thierry Henry with Richard Dunne after the game in Paris
Thierry Henry with Richard Dunne after the game in Paris

Those of us in Paris six years ago, talking to Republic of Ireland fans outside Stade de France, will never forget their disgust at Thierry Henry’s cheating and the Frenchman’s attempt to console heartbroken players like Richard Dunne.

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Their anger surely returns with a vengeance at the astonishing revelation that their own people, the FAI, accepted €5m from Fifa not to pursue a legal case, basically cash for no questions.

For those Irish supporters in Paris, that hush money must feel like blood money. For observers of Fifa’s notorious approach to smoothing out wrinkles in its precious tournaments this was another dispiriting case of money first, honest players and real supporters nowhere.

To one side of Stade de France, near where it leans on the hard shoulder of the A1 autoroute, there are vans selling beer. Fans congregate to reflect on the match, keeping an eye out for taxis. On that ignominious night of Nov 18, 2009, a group of Irish followers stayed to drown their sorrows, debate Henry’s duplicity and the verdict was withering.

His unpunished offence, handling the ball twice towards William Gallas to score and take France to the 2010 World Cup finals, was rightly deemed a crime against players like Dunne, against their own (magnificent and vocal) support and against the sport itself. Henry could have become a revered ambassador for fair play, admitting his handball, but he chose the cynical path as, sadly, most professionals would. It was his unabashed celebration, as well as the double handball, that also outraged. Irish fans have never forgiven him.

It was even more of an assault on the essence of sport by Henry because the Irish, a team of lesser abilities but bigger hearts, had played so well from Shay Given in goal to Dunne and Sean St Ledger in defence, to the tireless Keith Andrews and Damian Duff, Robbie Keane, Kevin Doyle and others. They were unfairly denied a trip to South Africa, concluded the Irish fans bemoaning their fate. The Irish are one of the more principled teams in a sport lacking scruples, making Henry’s offence even more shameful. The horrible lesson from Paris was that cheats prosper.

If Henry’s pollution of the spirit of the game stirred contempt and fury, the FAI’s willingness to stay quiet for €5m is even worse. Nobody gathered around those beer-vans could have even guessed the FAI’s chosen course of action. The talk that night was of a replay. Take the money?

That’s laughable, contemptible, inconceivable. How could anyone with any soul or simple respect for their fellow-man put a price on the heartache suffered by Dunne, those fabulous fans and a sport craving probity? How could the FAI consider with a straight face investing that Fifa “loan” into any stadium used by players who dream of reaching a World Cup?

As somebody remarked the day after the game: “It’s not about money. This is about sporting integrity.” Who said that? Step forward John Delaney, chief executive of the FAI.

After Delaney’s subsequent comments on Thursday afternoon, Fifa released a statement claiming it was a “loan” to the FAI for the building of a stadium and the €5m was to have been repaid if Ireland qualified for the 2014 World Cup. When they failed to make Brazil, Fifa wrote off the “loan”. Who accepts an agreement like that?

The FAI should not have bowed so meekly towards Sepp Blatter and Fifa, even if Delaney argued it was “an agreement not to proceed with a legal case”. It was actually an agreement to let down players like Dunne and those supporters standing in disbelief outside Stade de France.

Delaney and the FAI should have been above that. They should not have been stooping to Fifa’s debased standards that money is the answer to everything. England’s fans have just acquired some new song-writing material as they head to Dublin this weekend. The FAI was bought off by Blatter.

Irish Independent

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