I’m going to begin this piece by saying what some of you already know, but for those who don’t: I love Les Bleus. I picked them to go all the way in 2006, and I will pick them again in 2010 (hey, that rhymed). I was thrilled when the goal was scored in extra time yesterday, actually screaming and falling off my office chair. There was even a big ‘ol lump in my throat from the joy, a joy tainted with sadness because this meant that Ruh-Roh Dumbassnech would remain as the France coach.
Then I saw the replay of the goal.
And I didn’t feel like crying any more. I wanted to hide my head in shame as a surrogate for Thierry Henry.
Then I came here, and the anti-France epithets were flying from some and frankly, I don’t blame them. The following morning, L’Affaire du Main is still the biggest news in the world of football, and why? Well, there are a host of reasons.
1. The footy press is English-based and for an unsettlingly large part, English-biased. It’s why the Prem is always the best league in the world, even after we spanked United like a tow-headed stepchild last year. It’s some of the reason why today, Thierry Henry is the most evil man alive.
2. Many don’t like the French. Not as a people, not as a footballing side, period. And speaking as a frequent visitor to France, you can see why sometimes. No kidding.
3. It violates the sense of fair play that the game is rooted in. It was a move that was cheating and as such, shouldn’t be allowed.
4. One of the game’s greatest strikers now has a tarnished legacy. Two World Cups, two great French players, two tarnished legacies, one from a head, the other from a hand.
Why do we care? Simply put, because Henry is one of ours, and a key to us achieving at least a measure of the success that we had last season. But also because this is a football-focused board that discusses aspects of the game that have little to do with Barca, such as fairness, bias and the state of the international game.
I don’t believe there is a fan of Les Bleus this morning who feels at all exultant. You can’t. And what if, by some miracle, France wins the Cup? What then?
But here’s the real question that is at issue, for me: What did Henry really do that was wrong?
Yes, he handled the ball in the technical sense of the regulation. This handling resulted in the control that allowed him to slide a pass to Gallas for the game-winning goal. If press reports are to be believed, he fessed up to the official, and was told that he wasn’t the official.
I have been a competitive cyclist for more than three decades. At my peak, I was one of the fastest guys in the country in match sprinting, a physical, aggressive discipline that is as gladiator-like as anything you will ever see in cycling, or most other sports. And I have knocked people down as a part of race tactics.
You don’t plan to, you don’t even want to, really. You’re bumping, slamming and sometimes head-butting, and if you’re the bigger, stronger rider, the other guy might fall down. It’s part of the sport …. or it was back then. The rules have since been cleaned up. Afterward, you walk over to the other rider and you say “Sorry, dude.” Sometimes, you’re relegated or you get disqualified. Other times, it’s considered a “racing incident” and the ride continues. You don’t really know at the moment. But what you do know is this:
You want to win, and you will run over your own mother if she’s in the way, to do so. Because you’re an athlete, and a competitor. Is it fair? Good question. It could be argued that in sprinting, it was part of the tactics, that what makes Henry’s act so awful is that it is never, ever part of tactics to handle the ball.
But in that split-second, when everything is on the line and you know that it is, what decision will you make. Any top-level athlete who doesn’t say that he would try to get away with it is a saint (precious few of those), kidding himself (lots of those) or a liar (plenty of those, too). In an everyday, non-competitive situation, I would never, ever think of knocking another rider down. Ever. My sense of fair play is too strong for that.
Competition is something different altogether. I’ll chop you like a lumberjack. It’s a player in the heat of battle. Messi has dived, Iniesta has dived, Ibrahimovic has dived, Eto’o has dived, hosts of other Barca players have dived. But one commenter wants to disown Henry now, saying that he isn’t one of ours, because he handled the ball? Really?
I compared Henry’s infraction to fouls during a match, shirt-tugging during a set piece or a professional foul that prevents a breakaway. Of this last, The Yaya did one this very season that almost assurely prevented a goal. And what did we say, then and now? Do the circumstances matter? To me and my sense of fair play, no. Whether it’s a match that you’re winning by 4 goals, or with 2 minutes left in a World Cup playoff match, it’s still a cheat. Preventing a goal by cheating is the same as scoring one by cheating. Sorry, but it is.
Does any of this excuse what Henry did? The first question is, does it need to be excused? Again, that depends. He says that the ball bounced up into him, and admitted to a hand ball. The British press says that Henry dribbled like a Harlem Globetrotter to play it to his feet.
I’m calling biased bullshit on both of them.
Henry was battling defenders with his arms out, when the ball was in play. If it bounced up into his hand, he wasn’t going to stop until the referee called something. It’s what any player would do. Diving? Give it a shot. If the ref gives it to you, bully for you, right? You share a sheepish grin with your teammates, take the penalty and celebrate the goal.
Is the Henry incident any different? Yes and no. Yes, because of the circumstance and the import. But also because it wasn’t as deliberate a cheat as a dive. The play took less than a second. What can you do in less than a second? Not much. Do you think that, when two people are battling you for possession of a ball that somehow finds its way to you, you would have the presence of mind to dribble the ball with your hand to control it, then make a pass? Really?
The quip is “It’s only cheating if you get caught,” which apparently isn’t true. But why all the outrage, and why is it being directed at Henry? Ramzi laid out a passionate post about fair play, and I agree with most of it. But when you are in competition, your mind isn’t right in a world-related context. It goes back to my comment about Sylvinho being “nice,” but how we really didn’t know. Because the nicest people become savages on the football pitch, and vice-versa. You are in a competition mindset, and you will do anything to win. Anything.
What fascinates me more is that the rage is being directed at Henry, and not at the ref who missed the call. A notorious footballing bad boy is quoted as saying that he wouldn’t do it, that if he couldn’t control the ball with his feet, he wouldn’t handle it. Really? I’m calling bullshit on that one, because nobody knows what they would do. That’s sporting reality. A poll, some years back asked athletes if they could take a drug that would guarantee them an Olympic gold medal but significantly shorten their life span, a great many of them said “Yes.” During my truly competitive years, I would have said “Yes.”
Because that’s how it is. Nobody knows what they would have done in Henry’s situation. Nobody knows the chronology of events that transpired on the pitch. Remember that we all have the benefit of seeing it in super slo-mo, from multiple angles. What the refs had the benefit of is real time, the same real time that had me running around the newsroom, screaming.
I can’t really say lighten up, because international football makes us all like that. All I can say is read this, and think about it. And discuss it, in the way that we all do so well.
Thanks for reading.