Each spot in the 2010 World Cup Finals in South Africa was claimed by early afternoon (in the US) save one. That 32nd berth was on the line as the French and the Irish played in Paris. The sides were knotted after 174 minutes of play between two countries. The aggregate scoreline (meaning if you add the goals from both games) was level, 1-1. Both teams had scored on the road. Les Bleus were the talent-rich footballing power that had lost their je ne sais quoi under oddball skipper Raymond Domanech while the Irish were the perennial also-ran that had gained fortitude under the rough tutelage of Italian manager Giovanni Trappatoni.
With every other playoff set finished all eyes were on this contest and after 90 minutes (actually 180 if you count the first leg) the dispute was not settled. Ireland had missed a few gilt-edged chances to win the tie but they had failed in those moments and France seemed ascendent as the game entered the 30-minute overtime session. In the 103rd minute, France won a free kick about forty yards from the Irish goal. The ball was lofted in, but with too much pace and too high towards the byline to the left of the net. Thiery Henry tracked it. The rest, as they say, is actually history.
Henry's ill-gotten assist pushed France into the World Cup finals and left Ireland out in the cold. The French side definitely has the talent and star power to make marketers and television rights holders happy with the way things turned out. With elder statesmen Henry, Ribery, Gallas and Anelka they have players on some of the biggest sides in Europe. With Benzema and Nasri they've got two of the more exciting younger players on the international stage as well. There is no doubt that France has a higher ceiling in 2010 and little doubt that Ireland delivered the better effort in 2009. Trappatoni wrung every last bit from his charges and they will rightfully feel extremely hard done for the rest of their days by this game. Like any loss, though, you can always point to your own squandered opportunities and missed tackles along the way.
As an Arsenal fan I was happy to see defender William Gallas nod the ball over the line for the decisive score. His run through the box and his cool dispatch of the shot have zero to do with whether or not Henry handled the ball. Or whether or not Nicolas Anelka was offside on the free kick. Historically, I've always been against such chicanery. I was a defender on the pitch and am still one at heart. But that's also how I know that goalscorers get away with a lot more than goal stoppers. They always have. They always will. That's why you can't let that ball drop if you're the Ireland player marking Henry. And if you do you have to let it bounce then you also have to make sure that you're ushering it out with your body firmly between the ball and one of the most dangerous strikers of this era.
Obviously it was a handball. Actually, it was obviously two handballs. The first held the ball from caroming out of bounds. The feather-touch second dropped it from his hip to his shoe tops. But it all happened in an instant, on the run, with the byline looming. And then Henry calmly, deftly flicked the ball on the bounce across the goalmouth with the outstep of his right foot as his momentum carried him out of bounds. Again, there is no doubt that he handled it and it is likely that he did it on purpose but there is also something breathtaking about the whole thing. It was an amazing (for it's improbability not its legality) play by an world class player that displayed the athleticism, body control, creativity, mercenary goalscoring instinct and soft touch with the ball that have made him a legend. For those stated reasons, I've got three Henry shirts in drawers or closets at home. And perhaps I give the benefit of the doubt more than I likely should. But perhaps I'm also been worn down by the eggregious officiating errors that we see in MLB and the NBA to take much offense at the play. Yes, Henry broke the rules. But, in a class manner, admitted as much after the game. I like that. Most players would have given reporters some rubish about everything happening so quickly and that he didn't think he'd done anything wrong. Or just smiled a big bound-for-South-Africa smile and said that he had "no comment."
And I've got to say that I agree with Henry's postgame comments: The referee or the linesman should have made the call. That's not up to the players on the field. For generations, players have pulled shirts, spit on baseballs, gouged eyes in the pile while trying to secure a fumble, and occasionally, they have handled the ball before pushing the perfectly weighted pass across the box to an onrushing teammate who will head it home to secure a spot in the World Cup finals. Alright, well maybe that last one has never happened before but that's just because so few players are capable of doing what Henry did last night. And for that singular work of devious genius, Ireland will hate him forever.