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Thierry's handball gave Gallic visitors les bleus

THE infamous Thierry Henry handball cost Ireland more than a place in the last World Cup, according to the new edition of France's best-selling travel guide.

The editor of 'Le Guide du Routard', the travel bible of the French-speaking world, believes thousands of his fellow countrymen changed their travel plans out of fear of how they would be received in Ireland.

And official figures from the Central Statistics Office back up his hunch -- as 50,000 less French tourists travelled here the following year.

Mr Henry secured a place in Irish folklore infamy in November 2009 when he intentionally handled the ball in a vital play-off in Paris to set up the decisive French goal that ensured Ireland missed out on the World Cup in South Africa.

The handball made headlines all over the world and dominated debate here for weeks.

And perhaps fearful of how they would be received in the land of a hundred thousand welcomes, French people stayed away in their droves.

Around 391,300 French tourists visited Ireland in 2009 -- most of them before that night in November -- but that plummeted to 342,500 the following year.

A spokesman for the CSO said that although figures for last year were not yet available, the initial indications were that French tourist figures were recovering.

And Pierre Josse (below), editor of the influential travel book, has urged readers not to worry about the "Thierry Henry controversy".

"I am urging French readers not to dwell on the Thierry Henry incident at all," he said yesterday.

"I think many changed their travel plans immediately after the World Cup play-off and went elsewhere. But time is a healer.

"If the situation was reversed though, I have to say that I think French people would still be upset and angry about it."

The new Irish guidebook, which is due to be published in March, is likely to help boost visitors' numbers from France -- the fourth largest market for visitors to the island of Ireland.

Mr Josse added that now is the best time to visit as he believes the recession has made Irish people far more welcoming.

"I personally love Ireland and know the country very well, having travelled here so many times," he said.

"But I found people, particularly in Dublin, pretty rude during the Celtic Tiger. They lost their spirit."

Irish Independent