Saturday, 21 November 2009
We have got pretty riled about the injustice inflicted on the Irish football team by Thierry Henry though I doubt whether the Irish would do anything but cheer if the same thing happened to (eight hundred years of oppression) England. When I fully understood that nothing gave the Scots greater pleasure than England losing at anything, I finally made up my mind to enjoy a good drink each time Scotland lose. (As far as football is concerned I could have drunk myself stupid the last few years, of course.) Why cheer? An insignificant little return for mean spiritedness, I suppose. I have never wished the German or Austrian or Russian or Romanian or Turkish team to lose. Hungarians get a decent choice of years of oppression. But what do I know? In such cases I am clearly Hungarian, a Jewish Hungarian at that. I like the Scots I have met. I think there are admirable Scottish virtues. I am very fond of most of the Irish people I have met and there are clear Irish virtues. I wish them nothing but good, as indeed to the Scots. And Welsh, should anyone ask. Did someone mention the Cornish? Yes, good to them all. But - symbolically, since sport is about symbols as much as anything - they can have this piece of pettiness back.
What happened is, of course, unfair. It is wrong. It is the sanctification of a moment of universally observed cheating. My immediate reaction was to resolve not to watch any game in the World Cup in which France were involved and devoutly to hope that they lose every time. That remains. The defeat is all the more wrong because the seeding of the play-offs was clearly bent to advantage the supposedly bigger teams and this result nicely rounds off the bending. Blatter seems to me a peculiarly loathsome piece of bloated self-regard nor does Platini endear himself to me.
Regarding Henry it is quite possible, indeed it is very likely, that footballers feign this or that, nor are the noble English or Scots or Irish innocent. Henry, however, has not generally been renowned for cheating. On this occasion he did cheat and, in doing so, saved his country - as it might have seemed to him in the split-second flash - from defeat and the humiliation that would follow. It is not so much that he cheated I blame him for, not that split-second decision, but for what followed, for the non-apology ('If I hurt anyone...') which is not an apology but an insult and either a gross lie or a marvellous piece of self-deception that more or less accuses the victim or over-sensitivity. I blame him for his smirking. I blame him for running around the pitch to celebrate. I blame him for blaming the referee.
The pressures on footballers, and particularly managers, to succeed is enormous because the stakes are enormous. I don't think it is primarily financial pressure - it is success/ failure / will I ever work again pressure. It is not the fact that individual footballers or managers are paid vast amounts that constitutes the pressure. People adjust to whatever they are earning and the sliding scale of failure and success simply moves with them. The question is not one of individuals but of teams and clubs and crowds and perceptions. Of an ethos. And of the livelihoods of a lot of people associated with success and failure.
A refereeing error is not just a blow to pride, it is potentially survival or death for many. Crystal Palace were denied a perfectly good goal some time in the eighties: as a result they went down and so did their finances as well as a number of people's jobs. I am not a Palace supporter. I am not a supporter of the Irish national team - but you don't have to be.
Like the Maradona moment Henry's handball was clearly visible on television. To act as though it didn't matter is to slap the averagely honest average viewer in the face. Who cares what you think or see? the authorities proclaim. We decide what's right round here.
For that reason I am all for instant replay technology. Refer it to the equivalent of the fourth umpire. Who cares if it adds a few minutes? Allow the captains two or three appeals per match. It would be fairer. It wouldn't reward the cheats. You could send them off, ban them for, say, three games. Or longer. They could appeal using the same evidence. Their appeals might succeed. The fact is there is actual evidence. FIFA already penalise players retrospectively.
Cheats who seem to prosper create a very bad climate., not just in their respective sports, but in life generally. It deepens cynicism.
Henry's hand directly affected the Irish football team who have suffered a wrong. Well, other teams have suffered wrongs and have not received redress. The wilder shores of Irish nationalism are no more attractive than The Citizen in Joyce's Ulysses. But being seen to prosper and failing to face the fact is gross behaviour, grossly condoned. I sincerely hope the French lose every game they play in the World Cup. That's despite the fact I far rather that France had won the last World Cup, Zidane and all.