Thierry Henry’s outrageous opportunism will dominate the headlines, as is just, but there is plenty more to disseminate from a memorable night in Paris, as Raymond Domenech’s France were fortunate to qualify for the World Cup in controversial circumstances. Still, as will a thousand-and-one other articles on the issue, that’s where we’ll start.
In the immediate aftermath, words such as “robbed” (Sean St Ledger) and “embarrassing” (Kevin Doyle) were bandied about by the bitterly disappointed Irish players of Henry’s conduct. Giovanni Trapattoni cited Italy’s acrimonious elimination from Korea/Japan 2002 as a similar example of an appallingly unjust exit. It’s to be expected; as emotions are running sky-high when such a gleaming prize is at stake.
St Ledger, who expertly herded the razor-sharp Nicolas Anelka throughout, said that the Barcelona forward’s handling of the ball in the setting-up of William Gallas’ deciding goal had “cost a lot of people their dreams” and, unsurprisingly, called for FIFA to introduce video technology to the game immediately. It was, undoubtedly, a horrifically bitter pill to swallow, yet both players freely admitted that any Irish player would consider doing the same if placed in the same position – a stance also backed by ex-international Ronnie Whelan.
Henry’s own guilt – not exactly evident as he wheeled away in delight at his ill-gotten gains – became apparent when ‘comforting’ the indefatigable Richard Dunne at the final whistle. Awkwardly sitting beside, and then embracing the Ireland centre-half (who showed great sportsmanship to accept the gesture in his moment of despair) Henry looked every inch a man who knew of the upcoming repercussions of his actions upon his proud reputation. ‘Titi’ had clearly made a tit of himself.
Of course, this isn’t the first time some top-grade Henry gamesmanship has earned a vital result for his country. In a World Cup last-16 game the valiant challenge of Spain was undermined by a frankly pathetic dive by the striker. All of which makes his self-pitying touchline rant against referees, Barcelona and UEFA (among others) in the aftermath of Arsenal’s 2006 Champions League final defeat seem all the more hypocritical.
For his most recent misdemeanours, there can be no adequate defence. The first contact between ball and hand could barely be avoided, but the second contact was an instance of bare-faced cheating. Nonetheless, it’s already a moment destined for an unsavoury sort of sporting infamy (will ‘Hand of Henry’ soon enter the footballing lexicon?)
So, what of the game itself? Coming, as it did, on the back of France’s successful excursion to Croke Park last weekend, few expected the first 90 minutes in Paris to transpire as it did. Ireland may not have dominated possession as such, but carved out a whole host of chances, which Robbie Keane, Damien Duff and, most particularly, John O’Shea will rue the spurning of for months and years to come.
Trapattoni’s much-maligned ‘static’ midfield performed to the very limit of its supposedly restricted potential. Damien Duff has carried his sparky Fulham form into recent internationals and was responsible for the old boys’ act – with captain Keane – which gave his team a deserved lead late in the first half. Glen Whelan offered his usual unwavering industry until his withdrawal through injury, while his midfield partner, Blackburn’s Keith Andrews, excelled throughout. Liam Lawrence, still very inexperienced at this level, supplied precision delivery from the right flank and kept Patrice Evra largely subdued during a commanding performance. It was almost enough to make the fans forgive and forget the unfathomable omission of Andy Reid. Almost.
Substitute Darren Gibson showed that he remains a little raw, but has immense promise, as recognised by both Trap and his club manager, Sir Alex Ferguson. Birmingham’s Keith Fahey is also a future contender, while Stephen Reid, of Blackburn, will soon return to the fold. Steven Ireland, mercifully, has called time on his shambolic ‘contribution’ to his country. The only black-spot on the horizon is the potential future decline of such stalwarts as Kevin Kilbane, Duff and Keane, as age takes its inevitable toll. Whether or not these great servants to the cause can continue until 2010 will dictate whether or not Ireland can realistically hope to qualify for the next Euros. The qualified success of this past qualifying series will boost their world ranking and, they will hope, ensure a more comfortable ride on the road to Ukraine/Poland (or wherever it may eventually be).
Whatever its dubious genesis, Gallas’ goal takes France to the World Cup, where they will be dangerous dark-horses. Continuously clueless Raymond Domenech lucked-out in reaching the last World Cup final courtesy of Zinedine Zidane’s heroics, and, now that qualification is sealed, might expect to contend once again. Sure, they were spiritless and shapeless at the Stade de France, but any side which – at full strength – can boast a forward line of Ribéry-Anelka-Henry-Benzema is one to be reckoned with. Jérémy Toulalan will also be a welcome returnee, while Domenech should stick to his guns regarding his exclusion of over-the-hill Patrick Vieira. Goalkeeper Hugo Lloris has already proven his worth and is a star of the future.
Only the coach’s typically obscure selection policy (A-P Gignac starting both games despite a lack of recent goals for Toulouse and a horror-showing in Dublin, while Benzema warmed the bench) can prevent a talented team from reaching at least the later stages of a World Cup which will be littered with unlikely outsiders (North Korea, New Zealand, Slovenia, Slovakia, Serbia, Honduras, et al).Their “very, very lucky” qualification (according to Florent Malouda) will fade from French memories once the great football festival kicks off next summer. Ireland, however, will only have bitter acrimony and the sympathies of football fans around the globe to console them as they consider what might have been had the footballing gods looked more kindly upon them.