Who else is bitterly disappointed by this morning’s World Cup qualifiers? I know I certainly am, there were no real upsets, indeed the only team who suffered a shock defeat were Russia, a team who I was looking forward to watching at the World Cup because they play a nice brand of hard-working football, and hell, it’s always a pleasure to watch Andrey Arshavin play football. It has to be said though, the biggest disappointment of all occurred, unsurprisingly, in Paris.
Few gave the Irish a chance when they conceded an away goal in the first leg, but I thought they’d go there and cause the French problems and so they did, probably doing more than enough to win the game. Yet despite being outplayed, despite being over-confident, despite having a ludicrously poor manager and despite scoring a goal that featured two offside players and two separate hand-balls, the French will be at the World Cup.
Of course, many people would argue that a World Cup without France wouldn’t be the same, because they can’t imagine a World Cup where one of football’s superpowers and a team featuring such stars as Thierry Henry, Karim Benzema and uh… William Gallas aren’t in attendance. However, not only does this reasoning make a mockery of the qualification system (no one has a divine right to attend – except perhaps the defending Champions), it also ignores three solid reasons why it would have been better for football, Henry himself and French football in general if Ireland had triumphed in Paris.
In a general sense, I actually disagree with those people who claim that a World Cup without the likes of France, Portugal and Argentina would be less of a spectacle. These teams have to earn their place in the competition but it seems to me that they have forgotten that during this qualification campaign. Their lacklustre displays suggested that their players always assumed that they simply had to turn up to qualify and it has probably given the French especially quite a wake up call to come so close to failure.
And in some ways, that makes me sad that the ‘lesser’ teams like Bosnia and Ireland (no disrespect intended) didn’t make it. Because the fans of those nations would, in my opinion at least, make the atmosphere in South Africa next year far more enjoyable for their fellow fans. Rather than seeing the French and Portuguese fans stressing about winning the competition, wouldn’t it have been great to see the streets of Jo’burg flooded with Bosnians or Irish savouring the atmosphere and just having a great time whatever the goings on out on the pitch.
New Zealand have qualified for this World Cup, their first in 28 years, and already the White Noise fan group are planning their trip – they’ll provide a cracking atmosphere wherever they end up in South Africa and often it is the spirit and the novelty of some of the smaller teams and nations that make the World Cup such a special event. Obviously some of the bigger nations fans’ will always create a famous atmosphere (the Brazilians and the English spring to mind) but having fans who don’t make the trip every few years always adds something special to the festival of football.
Indeed, there are few nations so universally popular as the Irish anywhere in the world – which other country-specific holiday is celebrated so wildly and universally as St. Patrick’s Day? They’re a nation famous for having a good time and for being down to earth and friendly and it’s a shame that few of them will now make the trip to South Africa. On top of the atmosphere provided by the fans of course, the more of the so called smaller nations at the tournament, the greater the chance of upsets on the pitch too, and every one loves a bit of World Cup drama.
So although France have more “pedigree” that the Republic of Ireland, I think that football has on the whole missed out this morning. While meaning no disrespect to the French, the Irish would almost certainly have made the atmosphere around the tournament a much more enjoyable one and after all, the World Cup really is just one big party, and boy do the Paddies know how to party. Of course, the French will disagree but there is actually an argument that suggests that they’d have been better off missing out for their own sakes too.
That reason can pretty much be spelled out in two words: ‘Raymond’ and ‘Domenech’. The man is a terrible coach. Absolutely useless. His reign as French boss has been pretty shambolic from start to present despite their run to the finals of the ’06 World Cup which seems to have been a blip in an otherwise woeful period for the French. He has often seemed over reliant on the merits of France’s ageing golden generation and looks pretty much useless when it comes to introducing new players and ideas.
In my opinion, France would have benefitted a great deal from missing out on the World Cup purely because it would have made sacking Domenech a formality. As it is, they may still sack him, but to do so would seem a little harsh given that he has got them to the World Cup, albeit by the very skin of their teeth. However, despite their fortuitous run in Germany three years ago, a France side under Domenech will probably pose very little threat to even the quarter finals in South Africa next year.
Of course, no football fan likes to miss out on a major tournament, for me seeing Euro 2008 without England in it was simply painful. However, I recognise that the wake-up-call that was our failure to qualify to years ago has been – in the long run – good for English football. It’s seen the game completely re-evaluated from grass-roots upwards and made sure that the FA went out of their way to secure an absolutely top class coach to replace the hapless McClaren, which means that we can be cautiously optimistic for our prospects next year.
France could well benefit from something similar. It’s now over a decade since their famous win in the ’98 World Cup and in many ways French football is still living off those successes in the way that Liverpool are living on their (long) past glories. If they were to bring in a young and hungry manager, or at least someone with charisma like Fabio Capello, they could start to rebuild with a very talented crop of French youngsters – the likes of Ribery, Benzema, Nasri, Ben Arfa, Clichy, Diaby and Fanni suggest that another successful spell for France is not too far away.
However, now that they’ve edged past the Irish and into the World Cup there’s every chance that they may keep the faith with Domenech, which I’m sure will condemn them to a poor World Cup campaign and delay the beginning of a rebuilding process that to me looks like an essential step for at least another year. So in many ways, qualification for this World Cup may actually be a curse in disguise for Les Bleus, though of course, few will actually see it that way.
Perhaps the main reason why this morning’s defeat of Ireland is a shame though, is that this one match has no irrevocably stained the career of one of the games great modern players. Thierry Henry has been, and still is, a fantastic footballer for many years now and when in full flight there are few more elegant players to watch. More than that though, he has always played with a smile on his face and long been considered one of footballs nice guys – unless you’re a Spurs fans of course.
Now though, Henry’s name will forever be synonymous with dishonesty and cheating. Because there’s simply no doubt that he cheated to win France the tie, and that he did so deliberately. He quite clearly used his arm not only to stop the ball from going out of play, but to then manoeuvre it back towards his foot so he could cross for Gallas and so far from being an accidental handball that the referee missed, this is a blatant and calculated act of dishonesty that has cost Ireland big time.
Of course, I completely understand Henry’s desire to be at the World Cup. It’s the biggest stage in the world and every player on the pitch was desperate to be there. But on a night when the Irish had not only outplayed France in their own backyard, but also out fought them and shown far greater desire than their more esteemed rivals, Henry’s conscious choice to cheat has cost the worthy victors their deserved reward, and that is something that will never, ever be forgotten.
Diego Maradona is remembered as one of the great players in football’s history, but primarily his place in history was cemented in the 1986 World Cup quarter-final against England when he scored both the best and worst goals in the history of the game. That his reputation remains even partly in tact after his outrageous “Hand of God” goals is solely down to the fact that he scored the “Goal of the Century” four minutes later. Still though, many in the game remember Pele far more fondly than Maradona, who has been forever labelled as a tarnished great, whose dishonesty stained his greatness.
Henry though, is certainly not in Maradona’s class. A brilliant and elegant goalscorer he is one of Arsenal’s best ever players and perhaps one of the finest to have graced the Premier League, but he is certainly not one of the world’s absolute all time greats. Neither did he particularly distinguish himself in last night’s game, in fact his only act of real significance was his blatant handling to set up the goal that ultimately settled the tie. Thus there will be no real redemption for Henry as their has been for Maradona.
A player who brought a lot of joy to a lot of people with his grace and guile during many successful years at Arsenal and Barcelona will now be thought of only as the man who cheated to bring about a great injustice. And that’s a shame. Because Henry is a supremely gifted footballer and has, generally, played the game the right way down the years. Now though, he will get little remembrance for the skill he doubtless possesses in his feet, and will go down in history as a cheat and a crook.
Ultimately then, yesterday’s World Cup qualifiers were pretty disappointing. The World Cup has been denied the presence of the Irish, the French have perhaps condemned themselves to another year suffering under Domenech and the name of a modern football legend has been ruined forever. Plus, I won’t get to watch a Russian side that I’m quite fond of at the World Cup and Cristiano Ronaldo, another famous football cheat, will probably be there too. That’s a crying shame indeed.
Have your say:
What were your thoughts on yesterday’s qualifying action? Does Henry deserve the vilification he will undoubtedly receive? Will France actually do anything at the World Cup after all this? Please leave a comment below…