Tuesday, November 24, 2009

To replay or not to replay

See, there we all were giving George Burley a right good kicking for not even getting us a play off place. And he was doing us a favour after all. What misery he saved from, what tortured nights of the soul, the sheer injustice, the pain of being denied by a cowardly act of cheating. That's a hard one to get over. Just ask Terry Butcher.

So this blog is full of sympathy for the Irish players, management and supporters. I watched the game on Wednesday and Ireland played very well and the French pretty poorly.

And then Thierry Henry stuck out a hand and juggled the ball. It was unclear on the TV at first and you can understand how the officials failed to spot it. I have scoffed at the additional linesman in the Europa League this season but maybe, just maybe, they would have spotted it.

Henry has now admitted his craven act of illegal opportunism. He's even said a replay would be the best decision (cunningly waiting until FIFA had said no way) and spoken of the temptation to quit following the fallout of his act of madness. Such a thorough mea culpa suggests that, if nothing else, he really values that razor contract.

The whole affair stinks. The way FIFA changed the rules to ensure their favoured four received easier play off fixtures was typical of a governing body that has lost any relationship it once had with the meaning of sport. Their incompetence and crassness provided a fertile breeding ground for conspiracy theories.

But the hysterical reaction is over the top. Outrage seemed to be the default position. But which of us has never seen a game turn in our favour thanks to a player conning the referee. Which of us in Scotland don't remember with a touch of pride Joe Jordan's handball against Wales in 1977? With a little smugness Maradonna's hand of God in 1986? With a little horror the disputed England goal in 1966?

In Roy Keane's typically brutal rant he came closest to addressing the real issue when he mentioned the dodgy penalty that had turned a tricky tie in Georgia in Ireland's favour. The good decisions and the bad decisions, the acts of fair play and the acts of cheating. They do even themselves out, as hard as they might be to take at the time.

The saturation coverage of football has reached such a level that everybody must have an opinion on everything. Fair enough. But I feel more comfortable when politicians aren't demanding replays from FIFA or risking diplomatic incidents because of what's happened on the football field.

As much as the Irish are entitled to feel hurt, as much as Henry deserves to be pilloried, they are simply passing actors in a play that we've all seen a hundred times. Sometimes it goes for you, sometimes it doesn't. And rarely does one incident, one moment of madness, genius or simple cheating decide a football game.

By the time Henry used his hand (my own opinion: the first touch might not have been deliberate, the second was cynical act of a man who valued his own reputation over the spirit of the game) Ireland should have already been through. John O'Shea, Damien Duff and Robbie Keane all wasted chances to put the game beyond the French.

I would have loved Ireland to go to South Africa. And it's a shame that they lost in such a cruel way. So give Henry the opprobrium he deserves. But don't demand a replay because it sets a bad precedent. Where does it end? And what would it mean for Ireland the next time one of their players anticipates a challenge that never actually comes but wins a penalty nonetheless?

Football is an emotional game. It can lead to temporary madness. But the massive overreaction to the events of last Wednesday night did Ireland no favours. As might have been predicted, FIFA's playoff charade worked only to lessen the standing of the game they were intended to celebrate.