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WEB EXCLUSIVE | KEVIN CULLEN

Handing it to France

Disputed soccer win brings despair to Irish bar owners

By Kevin Cullen
Globe Staff / November 19, 2009

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The Banshee is as good a place as any to have your heart broken.

It is a fine, unpretentious pub on Dorchester Avenue, in Dorchester, and on Wednesday afternoon it was full of Irishmen, and they had their hearts broken.

By the French, of all people.

At stake was something as important as life itself: a place in next summer's World Cup finals in South Africa.

Historically speaking, the French and the Irish have always gotten along in this town.

They came here centuries ago with a common dislike: the English. But that's so 19th century. Everybody likes the Brits now.

And then there's the Catholic Church, the most enduring institution in town. It was founded in Boston by the French and built into a real power by the Irish. So they've got that in common.

But you didn't want to get between an Irishman and a Frenchman around here yesterday, and especially not today.

By the time of the kickoff at the Stade de France outside Paris, The Banshee was full of well-balanced Irishmen: they had chips on both shoulders.

France, the 1998 World Champions and 2006 World Cup finalists, are a soccer power. Ireland, not so much. The world's worst-kept secret is that FIFA, soccer's world governing body, wanted France, Portugal, Greece and Russia to get through this week's playoffs to qualify for next summer's finals. The Irish had accused FIFA of seeding the playoffs, and scheduling the home-and-home series, to favor the big nations.

France got lucky in Dublin on Saturday. A shot deflected off an Irish defender, then glanced off the goalpost, for the only goal of the match.

On Wednesday, the Irish played as if they had nothing to lose, which they didn't. France played poorly, making uncharacteristically sloppy mistakes, missing traps, inexplicably kicking balls out of bounds. Ireland pressed and pressed and, in the 33rd minute, were rewarded when Damien Duff cut back a gorgeous pass to his captain, Robbie Keane. Keane ignored his reputation for impetuousness, letting the ball move all the way across his body to his right foot before he slotted it into the right corner.

The Banshee erupted.

Ireland squandered several chances to score again, which would have sent them to South Africa. As it was, the game ended 1-0, but went to overtime because the teams had split their games, each scoring an away goal.

Again, Ireland missed some chances to score and then, on a free kick awarded to France, all hell broke loose. France scored and the unlikely villain was Thierry Henry, a terrific player who is the third guy in those Gillette commercials with Tiger Woods and Roger Federer, the guy who most Americans look at and ask, "Who he?"

The TV replay, which, unlike the other major sports, FIFA refuses to utilize, was clear-cut: Henry used his hand to guide the ball down to his foot, sent it across to William Gallas, who put it in the net while every Irishman on the pitch, not to mention in The Banshee, put their hands up, appealing to the referee to recognize a hand ball. The pleas fell on deaf ears.

The shouts and curses and gasps of disbelief in The Banshee were drowned out by an unmistakably Dublin accent, which bellowed high above the din: "Jayzuz! He didn't handle the ball. He (expletive) caressed it, fer (expletive) sake."

"This is what FIFA wanted," Tony Riley said, staring inconsolably at the shriveled lime in his empty bottle of Corona. "A disgrace."

It's more than a disgrace. It's a lost boost in the recession for pubs like The Banshee, and dozens of others like it in Boston, Quincy, Cambridge and Somerville. The Irish will watch the World Cup matches, but they won't spend money like they do when Ireland is playing. Ray Butler, one of the owners of The Banshee, looked like he wanted to climb through the TV and have a go at the Swedish ref, who, like his fellow Swedish linesmen, is blind but not so dumb when it comes to doing FIFA's bidding.

"The boys played well," said Brendan Doyle, no relation to Kevin, the Irish forward who struggled to find his touch. "They deserve better. So do all football fans. This result is a disgrace not just to Ireland, but to the game."

The Irish are demanding a replay. And there is precedent. In 2005, Uzbekistan's qualifier against Bahrain was replayed after a Japanese ref made a mistake in not allowing a penalty kick.

Thierry Henry, meanwhile, will be forever known in Ireland by a single word, which is unprintable, but, in fairness, is a term of endearment in certain sections of Kerry.

"That's it," the Irishman sitting next to me said, getting up to leave in disgust. "I'm off those razors." And the funny thing is, he looked like he could use a shave.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com