05 June 2015

Thierry Henry's Hand of God, Arsenal, and the FIFA crisis...

Perhaps no footballing moment breaks my heart in as many ways as the controversial goal that France scored over Ireland in the 2010 World Cup qualifier play-off, the goal in which Thierry Henry, as quintessential a Gunner as there may ever be, handled the ball twice before squaring a pass to William Gallas, who scored a crucial goal that allowed France to advance on aggregate over Ireland. My family are from Ireland, and I'll always root for the boys in green. Seeing them miss a chance at a World Cup appearance, seeing them miss that chance through Henry's hand of god, has to stand as one of the most gut-wrenching moments I've experienced as a football fan. To learn that the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) accepted a  £3.6m settlement to stop legal action very nearly breaks my heart.

On the international stage, Ireland hardly even qualify as an afterthought. Yes, they pummel the likes of Malta, Latvia, and the Faroe Islands but are regularly humbled by the big boys. After losing the first leg 0-1, Ireland dominated the second at the Stade de France, seizing the lead in the second half while wasting chance after chance. These were heady times for an overmatched squad, and the idea that a second away-goal would earn qualification was almost too exhilirating to describe. Aside from appearances (1990, 1994, 2002), Ireland have had to watch the World Cup rather than participate in it.

A chance to knock off France to qualify for the World Cup might be one for the ages. Instead, the change was cruelly snatched away by none other than Thierry Henry, whose blatant handling of the ball allowed France to advance. Henry himself admitted it, saying "I handled the ball" and calling for a replay. Arsène Wenger agreed, saying that "France has to say, 'yes, it was a handball and we offer a replay." (For what it's worth, Arsenal offered Sheffield Wednesday a replay in the 1999 FA Cup after scoring a goal in dubious circimstances). However, FIFA would not be moved, and the result stood. Fast forward to Thursday, 6 June 2015, and we learn that the FAI accepted an out-of-court settlement to avoid what would be a long, expensive, and difficult case that would establish an awkward precedent for similar disputes in the future. In other circumstances, we could leave it at that.

However, we have to play the hand we're dealt.

Last week, fourteen people were indicted on various charges of corruption, racketeering, wire fraud, and money-laundering. Earlier this week, FIFA president Sepp Blatter stepped down, possibly probably because he might soon be indicted as well. In almost any other year, the FAI's decision to accept an out-of-court settlement would be accepted as such. In this particular year, though, that decision positively reeks of corruption. That out-of-court settlement now sounds very much like a bribe.

Liam Brady, an Arsenal legend and an Ireland assistant manager at the time, didn't mince words after the match, saying this:
With the draw, [which was seeded], FIFA wanted France and Portugal to go through, and that's what happened. You saw the goal and that's enough said. It's a bad day for football. When it comes to the crunch, the big teams always seem to go through.
Depending on whom you ask, the settlement was a loan for "the construction of a stadium in Ireland" to be repaid if Ireland qualified for the 2014 World Cup (that would be a FIFA spokesman). The FAI said that the settlement had no such conditions and was reached only after receiving "strong legal advice."

I don't know what to think, to be honest, and maybe this is a case where ignorance amounts to bliss. I fell in love with Arsenal when it had a strong Irish core—Brady, Stapleton, O'Leary—and it tears me to bits to see Ireland lose to France when Arsenal has had such a strong French core—that France squad included Sagna, Gallas, Anelka, and Henry (and, yes, Squillaci, who would join Arsenal later...).

Ironically, it may be Henry who emerges from the fiasco unscathed, admitting that he handled the ball, pointing out that Ireland deserved to to go South Africa in 2014, and calling for a replay. FIFA, of course, look all the more sordid. The FAI look complicit, and the French Football Federation look crassly craven. There's a bit of karma, of course; that France squad imploded and failed to advance past the group-stage.

To be fair, though, that's little more than sour grapes. I'll leave you with Stephen Blackpool: "Who can look on't sir, and fairly tell a man 'tis not a muddle?"