Fair play, my foot. FIFA is happy to have a con artist like Henry in finals

RUGBY fans should well remember what Neil Back did to Munster in 2002. It was the closing minutes of the Heineken Cup final between the Irish team and his side, Leicester. The English side is winning by 15 points to 9, but Munster have a scrum in front of the Leicester posts, in a perfect position to launch a final assault on the Leicester line, to score a try that would have left Munster with a conversion to win the cup.

As Peter Stringer went to put the ball into the scrum, wing-forward Back put up his hand quickly and knocked the ball out of Stringer’s hands and into the Leicester side of the scrum. The referee, on the other side of the scrum, did not see it and the touch judge on the correct side did not see it either. Munster lost possession and the last chance to rescue the game.

Back had cheated and gotten away with it. Leicester won.

In the immediate aftermath and in the following years some of the Munster players were incredibly pragmatic and forgiving. Many of them said Back had done only what they would have done had the positions been reversed. They blamed the referee for not seeing it and themselves for being in a position whereby this incident meant they could not win. Others stayed silent for fear of being seen as bad losers. They put it down to experience, even though for some players it meant the last chance of winning a Heineken Cup was gone.

This incident came to mind yesterday when reflecting on the cheating that cost Ireland a place in next year’s soccer World Cup – and probably for some players their last chance of getting to one. The reluctance of the Irish players and management to call Thierry Henry what he is – a cheat – and instead to place the blame on the referee and linesman for allowing the French goal that sent Ireland out of the World Cup on Wednesday evening emphasises just how debased much of professional sport has become.

If not exactly excused, then Henry’s behaviour has been explained by his fellow professional soccer players on the basis that it was not his fault the officials did not catch him.

In interviews after the match there was a notable failure for dog to eat dog. Irish players such as Kevin Doyle and Sean St Ledger, and manager Giovanni Trappatoni, stopped short of condemning Henry’s actions and chose to concentrate on the failure of the match officials to see and punish the cheating. Richard Dunne embraced a seemingly contrite Henry when approached by the French striker after the game. Irish players who reacted badly to an alleged verbal insult to Keith Andrews after Saturday’s game did not remonstrate with the man whose actions had cheated them out of a deserved penalty shoot-out.

Deep down everyone knew that if an Irish player had done what Henry did, and if it had gone undetected by the referee, then everyone – fans as well as players – would have accepted it. We might have been embarrassed by it, but if it had brought us to the World Cup finals, well then so be it. The end justifies the means, and all that.

Robbie Keane was penalised for handball on a number of occasions during the game. Was he trying to cheat when he infringed the rules to gain an advantage, albeit not as close to goal? Would we have cared if he had gotten away with it?

By refusing to blame Henry directly the innuendo, which cannot be proven or even alleged with any degree of certainty, has been that they deliberately ignored something they saw because FIFA, which runs the World Cup, wanted the French at the finals for financial reasons and were under some sort of instruction to ensure it happened.

Irish soccer has most certainly been on the receiving end of some very dubious decisions in the past – and our non-qualification for the 1982 World Cup finals in particular can be blamed on refereeing decisions that were highly suspicious, to say the very least, when possibly our best ever team was robbed in a group that included France, Holland and Belgium.

But if the officials had been nobbled or instructed then they could have given Nickolas Anelka a penalty when he dived over Shay Given earlier in the game.

Such speculation as to the referees deflects attention from the most important point – Henry cheated deliberately.

Graeme Souness, in the RTÉ studio, attempted to explain Henry’s actions by stating they were instinctive, even the second handball that followed the first. But he never suggested Henry might have admitted to it, have gone to the referee and said “the goal should not be allowed because I handled the ball to gain an advantage”. That simply does not happen in soccer.

Except that Henry seems to be claiming now that he had an on-field crisis of conscience and that he attempted to have the goal disallowed.

He was being quoted yesterday morning as saying he had gone to the referee to say the ball had hit his hand but that the referee had said he, and not Henry, was in charge and the goal stood. The TV pictures, by contrast, show him only celebrating the goal but it is possible, if scarcely believable, that he did actually go to the referee, unseen by TV coverage. But why should we give a cheat the benefit of the doubt? More pertinent perhaps are the reports of his comments that I saw on the internet yesterday morning and which did not include any reference to his alleged attempt to confess to the referee. “I will be honest. It was a handball. But I’m not the ref. I played it, the ref allowed. That’s a question you should ask him,” he said.

This admission of guilt should get him banned from participation in next summer’s World Cup – but it would be amazing if it does. Henry is a superstar with a profile so big that he features alongside golf’s Tiger Woods and tennis’s Roger Federer in a multi-million euro advertising campaign for a brand of razor blades.

TO ATTRACT television audiences to the World Cup, and therefore advertising money, FIFA will want players like Henry to be there. None of the Irish players has his cachet. It is why the qualifying play-offs were seeded to give countries like France a better chance to qualify (although it was amusing to see Russia lose out unexpectedly). Next summer, we will be subjected to the usual nonsense from FIFA about encouraging fair play. This extends no further than encouraging players to kick the ball out of play if an opponent is injured (or appears to be) and the defending team then “giving the ball back” to the team that was in possession when the game had to stop (Henry is an expert at kicking the ball back in such circumstances).

Players will continue to dive in an attempt to win frees and penalties, they will feign injury and wave imaginary cards at the referee in an attempt to persuade him to book or send off opponents. And we’ll be told how wonderful it all is.

If FIFA had any moral backbone it would ban Henry from the World Cup finals, issue a formal apology to Ireland (which it won’t for fear of a claim from the FAI for financial compensation) and introduce the use of a video referee system with immediate effect.

But with the attitudes prevalent in professional sport – of doing whatever it takes to win – that won’t happen.

The Last Word with Matt Cooper is broadcast on 100-102 Today FM, Monday to Friday, 4.30pm to 7pm. His bestselling book, Who Really Runs Ireland?, is available in all bookshops.

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