Thierry Henry’s antics against Ireland harmed image of entire game
Hypothetical scenario for you: Thierry Henry fails a drugs test for a performance-enhancing substance. Result? He gets a long ban and his reputation is in tatters for all time. Maybe France even get thrown out of the World Cup, you never know. Either way, his international career would be finished.
On Wednesday, Henry failed an honesty test and was guilty of performance-enhancing cheating. But he’ll get away with it. The storm of protest will die down and he will captain France in South Africa.
Yet which is the greater crime? The imaginary drug that improves Henry’s performance by perhaps 2 or 3 per cent, or the real handball that decided the destiny of a crucial match?
Both are serious assaults on the integrity of the game, yet football has strict punishments for drugs cheats but basically ignores the divers and the handballers.
You may say that drugs in sport is a more serious problem than players who try to con the referee. You may argue that handling the ball and taking steroids have no more in common than stealing a chocolate bar and robbing a bank.
But as we saw in Paris, the consequences of Henry’s kind of cheating can be massive. And while very few footballers take drugs, a huge number of them cheat.
Trying it on, taking a mile if the referee gives you an inch, is “part of the game”, you see. It’s “professionalism”. Popping illegal pills is not.
In a fast-paced contact sport, grey areas inevitably exist. I didn’t dive or deliberately handball, but I pushed and pulled defenders in my time. When does jostling for position become a foul? I don’t have a clear answer. That’s what the referee is for, to decide which challenges are acceptable and which are not.
Sticking out your hand to control the ball or doing a dying swan routine in the box are not ambiguous. We should all agree that wherever you draw the line between fair and unfair — which is a very difficult question — the shameless gamesmanship shown by Henry is not acceptable and must not be tolerated.
I can’t believe how meekly the Irish boys took the loss. Richard Dunne was sitting with Henry at the end. Why wasn’t Dunne throttling him? Why did Ireland get so worked up by Lassana Diarra’s sledging after the first leg, but not by Henry’s handball?
The only explanation I can think of is that they’re far too nice. In fact, it was hard to find anyone within the game publicly criticising Henry yesterday; it would make them hypocrites because everyone, it seems, is at it.
What Henry did was outrageous and yet normal. It’s easy to see how football has come to embrace a culture of dishonesty. As the sport has grown in importance and the rewards have become greater, the “victory at any cost” mentality has developed naturally. Top players are hugely driven, ambitious characters with a fierce will to win.
I don’t blame players for giving in to human nature. I blame the authorities for their total lack of leadership on the issue.
When players see others get away with cheating, they’re more likely to try it. And bending or breaking the rules is so often successful that you’re effectively handicapped if you don’t do it. Honest players are punished for their decency every time an opponent dives to win a penalty.
By ignoring technology, the authorities fail football. They waste the opportunity to dish out retrospective justice by handing out stiff penalties that would act as massive deterrents.
Isn’t blatant cheating as serious as a two-footed tackle? You aren’t hurting one man, you’re harming the image of the entire sport.
Henry should be given a three-match suspension. Make him miss the group stage in South Africa next year. The way France played on Wednesday, they’ll probably be out of the tournament after that, anyway. What an apt punishment that would be.
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