DUBLIN - Soccer-mad Ireland is fighting mad — and demanding justice for a disputed goal that had fans here crying “Oui were robbed.”
A blown call by referees cost the luckless Irish a spot in the World Cup in a loss to star-studded France.
Ireland played the game of its life Wednesday night in a Paris stadium rocking to the cheers of visiting Irish fans. But with momentum on their side and facing a penalty shootout within minutes, the Irish saw the ball fall near their goal — and into the outstretched palm of celebrated French striker Thierry Henry.
He slapped it not once but twice, guiding it to his foot and passing to teammate William Gallas for the winning overtime goal. Ireland’s squad slapped their hands and some screamed “Handball, ref!”
Keeping your hands off the ball is the most basic rule in soccer, and endless replays demonstrated beyond doubt to billions worldwide that the goal should not have counted. But the Swedish referee, Martin Hansson, and his assistants claimed to see nothing wrong — inspiring fury and conspiracy theories on the wintry, rain-sodden streets of Dublin.
More than one Dublin tabloid christened it the “Hand of Frog” — wordplay using slang for a Frenchman and comparing the event to another handball, the goal by Argentina’s Diego Maradona against England in the 1986 World Cup quarterfinal. Asked afterward if he had touched the ball, Maradona said it had been guided by “the hand of God.”
Henry quickly came clean about his sleight of hand, well aware that no video review can keep him from soccer’s grandest stage in June.
“I will be honest. It was a handball,” Henry said. “But I’m not the ref. I played it. The ref allowed it.”
Some accused the Swiss-based world governing body of soccer, FIFA, of bending its rules to suit the sport’s big guns like France because of the money and markets involved. France, a country of 65 million, won the world championship in 1998 and were runners-up in 2006. Ireland, population 4.4 million, chronically struggles even to qualify.
“They do video replays in rugby, American football, tennis, you name it — but not the biggest of them all, the World Cup. You tell me why,” said Robbie Nolan, a 40-year-old cabbie nursing a pint after work in a sports-themed Dublin pub bedecked in Irish soccer memorabilia. His cheeks still bore traces of the green, white and orange facepaint from the night before.
“I’ll tell you why,” he said, jabbing his finger at the Dublin Evening Herald’s front page picturing Henry beneath the headline: “YOU CHEAT.”
As callers flooded Ireland’s airwaves from morning to nightfall, rival radio stations raced to produce their own mock-pop tributes to the dubious goal by Henry. Dublin’s 98FM offered a take on Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” retitled “He Cheated.”
Until now, Henry has been known in the United States mostly for appearing in a Gillette ad with Tiger Woods and Roger Federer. And he has talked about perhaps finishing his career in Major League Soccer with the New York Red Bulls.
Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen said he would lobby his French counterpart, President Nicolas Sarkozy, at a European Union summit in Brussels.
“We’ll probably have a chat about it away from the table,” said Cowen, who lauded ordinary French soccer fans for “making it clear in great numbers that there would be a lot of disquiet about the manner of the goal.”
The Football Association of Ireland, meanwhile, filed formal demands to both FIFA and the French soccer federation for a replay. Both Cowen and soccer leaders both appealed to France’s sense of honor — and acknowledged the long odds for a rematch.
“It’s up to the people who govern the game now. Every time I go to a FIFA conference I hear about fair play and integrity and all those wonderful words,” said John Delaney, chief executive of the Football Association of Ireland.
In both Sweden and France, citizens registered their own sense of shame at their compatriots’ role in the outcome.
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
The Stockholm newspaper Aftonbladet declared that Hansson and his two Swedish assistant referees should be banned from World Cup duties. “Anything else would be a further insult to the Irish nation,” it opined.
In Paris, more than 80,000 voted in an online Le Monde newspaper poll asking whether France deserved to go to next year’s World Cup in South Africa. Most said no, that the Irish should go instead.
And the union representing France’s gym teachers declared outrage at what it called “indisputable cheating.”
Irish Justice Minister Dermot Ahern was the first government leader to demand justice — and also the quickest to suggest that the Irish stood little chance of getting it. He said FIFA was committed to promoting the high-population soccer powerhouses of Europe.
Still, he said Ireland must demand a rematch, if only to shame France and FIFA.
“They probably won’t grant it as we are minnows in world football,” he said. “But let’s put them on the spot anyway.”
PST: Should the winners of the Europa League be awarded a spot in the following season’s Champions League? That is the question that UEFA, Europe’s soccer governing body, will likely answer in the affirmative on Friday.
Nov. 19: John Delaney, the Head of the Football Association of Ireland, calls out F.I.F.A. and Thierry Henry for missing a call in Ireland's World Cup qualifier match against France.
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