The tragic hero of Paris

(This article was written on Friday, 20th of November 2009)

He has eventually reached everything that can be of importance in a life of a football player. World Champion 1998, European Champion 2000, Record scorer in the national team. This year – finally – Winner of the Champions League. French and Spanish league champion of course, twice the Golden Shoe of the UEFA, numerous best scorer trophies and eight times player of the year (five times France, three times England).

One title however Thierry Henry cannot claim his own – the Fair Play Award. But he can count on getting it. And that is because of him, the record scorer, the World Champion, European Champion and vice World Champion, the captain, the best striker that France ever had, the Equipe Tricolore failed in the World Championship qualification.

It was a bad game of the French – just as about every game in the WC qualification for South Africa. The 1:0 victory due to the misdirected shot of Anelka in the first leg was more than flattering. Here, in the second lag, the opponent from Ireland was pressing hard. Their first goal was just a matter of time, and only the skill of the French goaltender Hugo Lloris, obviously the man of the match, was the reason that the game was going into overtime. The opposing coach, Giovanni Trappatoni, grandmaster of the Cattenaccio, had prepared his squad perfectly. The Irish played with courage and skill, only in front of the net their nerves were failing several times. Opportunities for France were rare – until the 103rd minute.

After a confusing scene in the penalty box the ball came from Henry to William Gallas – who out of seemingly half a meter distance had no trouble to head the ball into the empty net. 1:1, France was going to the World Championship. Thus thought the French fans, thus thought the French players, thus especially thought the team of referees around the Swede Martin Hansson. The Irish players however had a completely different opinion, first of all goaltender Shay Given, who yet again was a safe recourse for his team. They stormed the referee, who had a long discussion with his assistants – and then declared “Goal”. And one other thought differently – Thierry Henry.

It is one of the moments that only come once in life – even in the life of such an exceptional player as Thierry Henry. A deciding moment: A simple player, a mercenary that does everything to win – or a great player, an example, an integrated and worthy representative of his country. As Martin Hansson raised his arm towards the middle of the stadion, Henry, who had hardly cheered about the goal, walked over to the Swedish referee and made the same sign as all Irish players – he pointed at his left hand. With this hand he had shoveled the ball, which had been unreachable for him with any legal usable body part in football and normally should've crossed the line for a goalkick, into the middle. And not even discreet, but twice and clearly intentional. The following pass reached Gallas, who legally used the head.

“I don't know what got into me”, an obviously crestfallen Henry stated later within the catacombs of the Stadion. “I saw the ball and acted subconsciously. I hit him towards the middle – with my hand. I regretted it immediately afterwards.” He hadn't turned in cheers and celebrated the goal that shouldn't have been one with fans and teammates. Instead he stood remotely, watching the team of referees while they were discussing. In the firm belief that there would come what had to come. “I expected him to rule a free kick for Ireland and show me the yellow card.”

When the Swede probably made the biggest mistake of his career instead, Thierry Henry saved him from embarrassment – and all of France, too. “When he ruled for goal, I hesitated shortly. Then I went over to him and told him: Ref, it was a hand ball.” Immediately all Irish pointed him out and screamed towards the Swede to please listen to him. “We could hardly hear our own words, our noses nearly touched each other”, the penitent Henry described the situation with the referee. “He asked me: Are you sure? And I answered him: Yes, it was a hand ball by me. Then he said that he was sorry for that – and thanked me.” Hansson proved grandeur, canceled his own decision and showed Henry the deserved yellow card.

The rest of the game became a side event compared to this situation. In the end France failed to qualify in the penalty shootout despite its exceptional goaltender Lloris. Ireland celebrated into the Paris night, while the Equipe Tricolore after the embarrassing elimination in the group stage of the European Championship will not be participating in South Africa at all. This also caused Raymond Domenech, who was unpopular for years already, his job – a decision that many deemed to have come two years too late.

“Of course I'm very disappointed that we're not qualified”, Henry stated a day later in a live interview that went nationwide in France. “But we failed to qualify hands-on. Ireland defeated us fairly – and we lost fairly.” France having the potential to take part in a World Championship, that is undoubted. With Olympique Lyon and Girondins Bordeaux two french teams already qualified for the next round of this years Champions League, while of the three German teams only the reigning national champion VfL Wolfsburg has considerable chances to qualify – with a Bosnian striker duo that hat its fair share of bad luck losing against Portugal's goal post. The German national players, qualified for the WC without a single defeat, mostly are playing for Bayern Munich (only third of their group after losing at home against Bordeaux), the VfB Stuttgart (with a lousy start in the Bundesliga season and third place in the Champions League group) or for teams that aren't even in the most important team competition (Bremen, Hamburg, Leverkusen).

“I think that France wouldn't have been happy with this goal”, Henry said in his official statement on Thursday. The polls prove him right. One day after the game over 80 percent of the French fans think that the Equipe deserved not to be qualified. At the same time Henry has managed to create the reason that could bring the slow French association to execute long-overdue reforms. The end of the Era Domenech, probably the worst since the double title wins at the end of the last millenium, probably no French will shed a tear about.

“Of course there will be people who'll say I had better kept my mouth shut”, Henry said smirking. “But it was the right decision.” On his chances of winning the Fair Play trophy he said: “It would be nice, but it's not that important. It's more important for me that when I tell my grandchildren about my career, I can say: I wasn't only a good sportsman, I was a great player as well.”

(On Wednesday, 18th of November 2009, Thierry Henry didn't go to talk to the referee. The irregular goal was counted. Due to that France qualified for the World Championship. Thierry Henry as well as the FIFA later referred to the final decision of the referee.)


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