It hurts to see any player cheat, but the fact that the incriminating hand belonged to one Thierry Henry, so often hailed as a model professional, cuts deep. Two days on and the impact of the Frenchman’s actions feels as raw now as the moment the sorry event unfolded in front of our disbelieving eyes. We know the disastrous ramifications that Henry’s handball has had on Ireland’s World Cup dreams, but what effect, if any, will it have on football fans in general and their relationship with the planet’s greatest players?
First things first. Henry handballed twice. Touch one was forgivable. Touch two unforgivable. His seemingly remorseless celebration and subsequent post-match denial of any intent will surely serve to scar Henry’s name just as much as the incident itself. Such actions don’t fit comfortably with our perception of the former Arsenal favourite. Henry was a loyal disciple of Arsene Wenger’s free-flowing football philosophy. Style and substance in harmony, he graced the pitch with effortless skill and sumptuous style. There was a pursuit of excellence in every touch he took that ingratiated him to even the most partisan football fan. What’s more, he was a marketers dream – a clean-cut ambassador of his sport. It is no accident that he appears in commercials alongside Tiger Woods and Roger Federer. Just 48 hours ago, Henry’s name was synonymous with class.
However, despite such a glowing image, it is naive to suggest that Henry’s temperament has always tallied with the high quality of his play. Indeed, before the ‘Hand of Gaul’, Henry already had a considerable blot on his ethical copy-book. In a 2006 World Cup meeting with Spain, the striker fell to the ground clutching his face after a robust challenge from Carlos Puyol. Replays showed that Puyol’s elbow had brushed his chest and nothing more. Rarely has an attempt to get an opposing player sent off looked so calculated – this coming just a few weeks after Henry showed disdain for Barcelona’s playacting at that years Champions League Final: “Next time I’ll learn to dive maybe, but I’m not a woman.” The episode shines an illuminating light on Henry’s comprehension of fair play and his limited allegiance to it. To see a man with such innate skill plumb to such depths was more than a little unsettling to watch. But he took it to a whole new level against Ireland.
It is important to note that Henry is the most recent in a line of star-studded players to bring the game into disrepute. Think Rivaldo inexplicably holding his face when a ball had hit his knee at World Cup 2002. Think Cristiano Ronaldo’s general diving and baiting of the referee to send Wayne Rooney off in the 2006 World Cup quarter-final. Think Zinedine Zidane’s head-butt on Marco Materazzi and let’s not get started on Diego Maradona. These severe breaches of misconduct leave indelible marks on a player’s legacy, we know that much. It is disastrous for them and it is disastrous for us. Their moments of madness instill images in our heads more iconic than their greatest goals.
It hurts every football fan to see that the best of the best are not only fallible human beings, but increasingly dishonest ones. An ability to deceive the referee, and thereby cheat the opposition, is an increasingly prominent tool in a player’s armor. Anything is seemingly fair game if the ref doesn’t spot an infringement – hence Henry’s abdication of responsibility after the final whistle: “It was a handball but I’m not the ref. You should ask him.”Strikingly, many of Ireland’s dejected players subscribed to a similar attitude. Damien Duff stated: “You can’t blame him (Henry). You expect the ref to see it.” It would appear that honesty is a bonus in a player – it is certainly not something that we should expect. If this is really the case then the integrity of the whole game is at stake. Even video technology cannot remedy such a mentality.
Every time a great player stamps on the spirit of fair play, we have to recalibrate our belief in the ‘beautiful’ game. We have to put a ceiling on how far we expect the values of the game to be up-held. We have to observe every game and every player with a mounting layer of cynicism and distrust. That is why our hearts will now sink instead of skip when we think of Henry – he has not only let himself and his nation down, he has let down the true heartbeat of the game – the honest football fan.