Comment: Oh, Henry!

Oh, Henry!

Thierry  henry  (photo credit: )
Thierry henry
(photo credit: )
Four years ago, on a brief family visit to England, my two sons, my daughter and I watched at a packed Highbury Stadium as Ian Wright, hitherto Arsenal's record goalscorer, presented a silver cannon to Thierry Henry, who had just surpassed his 186 goal total. The stadium rose to cheer them both: Wright, the cheeky Brit with the uncanny confidence in front of goal, and Henry, the elegant Frenchman who flicked and swerved and stroked the ball into the net whenever even half a chance presented itself. My kids were gently coerced into supporting Arsenal, the near-ish North London team I'd grown up loving, from early in their little Israeli lives. They had little Arsenal T-shirts, little Arsenal woolly hats and even, I confess, little Arsenal pajamas; her too. But once they began to appreciate the game and play it themselves, supporting Arsenal, albeit long distance, was no hardship. Under the scholarly Arsene Wenger, Arsenal played - as indeed they are again playing today - magnificent, purist's soccer: a smooth passing game, all elegance and intelligent movement. The exemplars, in my kids' formative years, were the incomparable Dennis Bergkamp, the splay-footed maestro Robert Pires and the peerless, cultured finisher Henry. And if Bergcamp could, very occasionally (whisper it), be just a bit of a dirty player, and Pires a trifle inconsistent, Henry was the complete role-model - the ideal mix of skill, tenacity, composure, refinement and grace on the field; the perfect, gently spoken, multi-lingual, cultured and unfailingly good-tempered ambassador off it. Arsenal's match that day in October 2005 was memorable for more than the pre-game ceremony. Behind the scoreline, a 1-0 defeat of Manchester City, lies the tale of one of the most bizarre penalty misses ever. Toying rather arrogantly with their outclassed opponents, Henry and his fellow countryman Pires attempted to emulate a venerable Johan Cruyff penalty trick. After the pair had consulted at length, Pires, rather than simply shooting for goal from the spot, tried to tap the ball forward for Henry to slot home. But Pires amateurishly miskicked, Henry couldn't get in a shot, the penalty was wasted, and Arsenal were lucky to hold onto their slender lead after City had a goal disallowed. That exhibition of Henry's hubris was quickly forgotten. His latest show of contempt will not be. And it truly was contempt that Henry demonstrated on Wednesday night when, after handling the ball not once but twice before supplying the cross that enabled France to overcome Ireland and qualify for next year's World Cup, the French captain failed to inform the unsighted referee that the goal should be disqualified. Contempt for "the beautiful game" whose honest essence he has extolled over years of lucrative Nike commercials. Contempt for the millions who bought in to his energetically cultivated image as the personification of grace and graciousness on the soccer field. Contempt for the "Fair-Play Code" that the world's governing soccer association FIFA has rightly cited as encapsulating the principles by which the sport should be played. Nobody can blame Henry too much for the first part of the double-handball itself. He may have been unsighted as the ball flashed towards him through a crowded penalty area and made its first contact with his left hand. But his second unlawful handling of the ball, controlling it before he flicked it across for teammate William Gallas to head home, cannot easily be ascribed to instinct. And there was nothing instinctive about his running to join his fellow players' ecstatic celebrations as this climactic World Cup playoff swung definitively, unfairly, their way. Yet Henry is no Diego Maradona, the amoral Argentinean who had no compunction in risibly characterizing his blatant handball against England in the World Cup of 1986 as an act of divine intervention, "The Hand of God." Or at least, we'd thought Henry was a finer man than Maradona. Until Wednesday night, and what one bitter Irish tabloid called "The Hand of Frog." The Henry we loved and thought we knew, after just a few moments' reflection, would have sorrowfully walked over to referee Martin Hanssen and acknowledged that the protests of Ireland's goalkeeper Shay Given and his flabbergasted teammates were justified. That he had handled the ball. That the goal must be disallowed. His teammates would have patted their captain on the back, shrugged, and got back to the game. Really. That's what they'd have done. They'd have accepted that he'd done the honorable thing. It might even have lifted their game; they'd been playing abysmally. The French crowd, much of which would have been mystified by what was happening, might have booed or it might have applauded. Ultimately it would have understood and felt itself honored by its sporting leader's decency. The game would have resumed. There was a chunk of extra time remaining. It could have gone either way. The better team would have ultimately won a place in South Africa 2010. Instead, the cheating team won. Henry said nothing and did nothing, nothing but celebrate and play on. He admitted the handball… long after the final whistle had blown. He called for a replay… three hours after FIFA, determining that the referee's decision would be final, had formally refused to order one. I was watching the game last Wednesday night with the elder of my two sons, now a worldly late-teenager. He was outraged by the handballs, aghast that the referee hadn't spotted them, and disgusted that gutsy Ireland had been ousted by such soccer treachery. But he was more saddened than surprised that Thierry Henry, whose features still gaze down from his bedroom walls, hadn't owned up. He's learned to lower his expectations over the years. And that's what is worst about Henry's dishonesty in Paris - the spurned opportunity to raise the moral bar, to confound our weary cynicism, to come clean, to do right. Henry's own most influential manager, Wenger, had provided the correct lesson for him. In February 1999, just a few months before Henry signed with Arsenal, Wenger insisted on replaying an FA Cup match against Sheffield United because Arsenal had scored their winning goal when the Sheffield team were expecting to have the ball passed back to them following medical treatment for one of their players. A rematch was indeed arranged; as it happened, Arsenal won again. On Friday, true to honorable form, Frenchman Wenger urged his country's soccer authorities to offer Ireland a replay. "I like justice in sport," said the Arsenal boss, "and I believe football has a big responsibility today to see how we want international life to go on, and to be an example for people who watch the game. That is part of the values football wants to defend." He was ignored. I've read a lot of injured prose over the last few days about soccer injustices evening out over the years; about it being unreasonable to expect players to act like gentlemen given the sporting and financial stakes; about the blame really attaching to the referee, or to the soccer authorities for failing to introduce the necessary technology to prevent such scandals. Nonsense. It is not unreasonable to expect our sportsmen, striving for the highest athletic ideals and handsomely paid for their proficiency, to acknowledge when they have blatantly broken the rules that govern their sports and grotesquely defrauded their opponents - to do what we are required to do in all our various walks of life: respect the laws that frame our conduct. The 10 rules in the FIFA "Fair-Play Code" refer to observing the laws of the game, respecting opponents and referees, promoting the interests of soccer and using soccer to make a better world - all goals that golden-booted striker Henry failed to slot home last Wednesday night. But it is Fair Play Rule One that speaks most pertinently to his sporting betrayal. "Winning is without value if victory has been achieved unfairly or dishonestly," it declares. "Cheating is easy, but brings no pleasure. Playing fair requires courage and character… Playing fair earns respect, while cheating only brings shame." Thierry Henry is now discovering the truth contained in those short sentences. An outstanding career will now be remembered for those few, critical seconds when he failed to match our expectations of him and, I have no doubt, failed to match his expectations of himself. Those few critical seconds when the exemplar of the beautiful game showed its ugliest face.