Before I get into this a caveat: I’m genuinely gutted for Ireland at missing out on a place at the World Cup. Genuinely. And I’ve only seen the pivotal incident once and very quickly at that.
But. And so.
The question I have is this: When did we all of a sudden turn into a nation of prissy, holier-than-thou, rule evangelists? Yes, you would expect the reaction to Ireland’s aggregate defeat by France to be a clamour of indignation, players weeping on the pitch, screaming headlines, but this? It’s so *shrill*. Listening to the 5Live commentary last night I was astounded to hear their pundits come out with lines like: “Well, Henry had the opportunity to admit the offence and have the goal disallowed…” What? If you’re playing top level international football – actually scratch that, any level of football – and the ball comes to you and on the spur of the moment you control it with your hand – yes, even twice – towards the end of a game that you really, really HAVE to win, and a decisive goal results from your action, are you going to go up to the ref and say, “actually, mate, you should really chalk that off”? Of course you’re not. Why? You’ll get strung up by your own players, your manager, your own fans. If you handle the ball on the way to creating a goal, you *expect* the goal to be disallowed and you to maybe pick up a booking. That’s the ref’s job, and 99 times out of 100 he and his assistants will make exactly that call. If they don’t, you’ve got away with murder, but that’s not your fault.
Of course, Henry shouldn’t have handled the ball, but these things tend to be instinctive, spur of the moment events and you expect the mechanisms that govern the game to prevent the advantage being taken. But sometimes they doesn’t. Sometimes the ref misses it. Even when it’s blatant. We live in a world now where we watch football on huge HD screens and have access to instant replays of the major incidents from every conceivable angle, and we forget that the experience of the players and officials on the pitch is vastly different to ours.
So, yes, maybe the TV replay thing has got merit. We should try and see what happens. But what I’m objecting to is this ridiculous White Night media crusade to rid the game of cheating altogether.
Because Football is one of the great ongoing narrative efforts of human culture (don’t laugh, it is). And tough as it is to accept being on the wrong side (or even the right side sometimes) of an injustice on the pitch (and as a Scot, I’ve had my fair share of both), it’s all part of the great drama of the story of football. It’s what engages us in those ongoing pub conversations that endure for years without resolution. The goals that never crossed the line. The unbelievably soft penalties. The Hands of God. It’s these, every bit as much as the Mara-Gemmell dribbles, the backs to the wall last ditch defending, the great team performances, that make the story of football as enthralling as it always has been.
Yes, it’s unfair. Yes, it’s tragic.
But tragedies make such good stories do they not.