By Mark Stokes
Back in 1981, Michel Platini, echoed the sentiments of then-France manager Michel Hidalgo, and claimed that if there was any justice in the world, Ireland would qualify for a major soccer tournament.
That statement followed a desperately unlucky campaign by the Boys in Green (losing out on goal difference) against Holland, Belgium and the French in an effort to reach the World Cup finals in Spain the following year.
Twenty-eight years later, Platini’s words came back to haunt him as the UEFA President remained deafeningly quiet following one of the biggest injustices the game has ever seen, a wrong which, as luck would have it, was perpetrated against the Irish on Wednesday night at Paris’s Stade de France.
Chasing a 1-0 deficit from Saturday’s first leg in Dublin, the Irish got just what the doctor ordered when Robbie Keane netted on 33 minutes. The visitors, playing some superb football, might have finished off the tie with a second, but their efforts came agonizingly close on four occasions.
Fast forward 70 enthralling minutes to extra time, where Thierry Henry chased a long pass into the Irish penalty area. With the ball headed out of play, and another French opportunity gone begging, the Barcelona based ‘ambassador of football’ stuck out his left hand to control the ball illegally, not once but twice, and then squared to William Gallas who scored in an unguarded net.
Henry even admitted it afterward:
“I will be honest, it was a handball. But I’m not the ref,” he said. “I played it. The ref allowed it. That’s a question you should ask him."
“I’m in the box, there are two defenders in front of me. The ball bounced off my hand, the referee did not see it and I played on."
The French striker was more than a little evasive in saying the ball bounced off his hand - rather he reached out and caught the thing in a move Randy Moss would have been proud of.
Though it was admirable of the French World Cup winner to admit his sins, the hurt wasn’t any less for Ireland and their fans who were devastated after missing out on the World Cup through what coach Giovanni Trapattoni called a “great mistake” by Swedish referee Martin Hansson.
“I told the referee that it is possible to make great mistakes,” Trapattoni said. “It is a bitter evening.”
Trapattoni made the valid point that the official should have talked to his assistants before awarding the goal, the Italian’s wish that he might also have interacted with Henry being slightly ambitious.
“All the European people saw the game and what happened. France played a good game in Dublin, but this time we played better and over the two games we deserved to go to South Africa,” Trapattoni said.
“The hand was so obvious, we're disgusted,” Robbie Keane said after the game before aiming a broadside at football’s governing body. “FIFA absolutely did not want Ireland at World Cup.”
And inevitably Platini’s name came into the mix once more (after the French victory) as the Frenchman was blamed, along with FIFA’s number one, Sepp Blatter, for arranging an easier passage for his compatriots in the playoffs.
With eight countries vying for the final four spots in Europe, FIFA curiously decided to seed the draw - a move which drew the ire of the smaller countries like Ireland, Bosnia, Slovenia and Ukraine (this ‘seeding’ process wasn’t part of the initial rules of the competition).
But while the seeding argument will likely soon drift over the horizon, the handball incident in Paris, which is already being likened to Diego Maradona’s ‘Hand of God’ goal in Mexico in 1986, will not. The clamor for TV replays in soccer is likely to reach a crescendo now.
Everything You Needed To Know About FIFA:
Those in charge of the world’s most popular game, had on their own web site within hours of the Paris World Cup tie, the following entitled article: ‘Gallas Breaks Irish Hearts’
The article rambled on for 637 words, yet made no mention at all (that’s nada, rien, nothing) of a handball during the game. Go figure?
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