Henry, God’s Hand and the Philosophy of Football

By | November 21, 2009

With the furor surrounding the France-Ireland game, and Thierry Henry’s decisive handball, dying down a little, it may be time to think through what just happened, and what it illuminates for us about the sport of football. After receiving a barrage of criticism, a not inconsiderable amount of it openly racist, Henry redeemed himself in some quarters with his declaration that the game should be replayed. Trappatoni, the coach of the Ireland team, made clear he didn’t blame Henry. Beckham came to his defense, seemingly a little put off by the tone of the criticism. Many wondered by Henry hadn’t immediately gone and told the referee what had happened. But, as some commentators have pointed, that seems a bit naive, to say the least. (See, for instance, the comments on Sanford Soccer net, notably those by Jackie Maniel). It’s a beautiful thought — ultimately, football wouldn’t even need referees, as players stepped over themselves to apologize one another and confess to any and all fouls — but it’s hard to imagine it coming to pass on this planet any time soon. And, as Christophe Lalo notes in So Foot, it’s also concretely hard to imagine Henry, surrounded by ecstatic teammates celebrating what was essentially a nearly-guaranteed ticket to South Africa, volunteering to the referee that there was a handball.

FIFA, however, has declared that the match will not be replayed, and the French Football Federation (F.F.F.) has declined to join the Irish Football Federation in continuing to demand a replay. Much of the vitriol surrounding the event is now being directed against the F.F.F. and the various administrators of football, including Michel Platini, who critics are calling hypocritical since they often call for fair play in football but are not willing to demand a replay of this particular game.

What to make of FIFA’s decision? It was, it seems to me, inevitable. To decide otherwise would have been to create a precedent with major consequences for the governance of football. Henry’s handball was particularly egregious and decisive, and yet it is just an extreme example of something that is a feature of many football games. Questionable calls by referees, often the result of intentional trickery or theatricality on the part of players, consistently shape the destinies of teams in professional and international play. Indeed, with rather impressive regularity, they  are often decisive in determining the outcome of games. Ask an Australian fan about the 2006 Italy-Australia game, for instance, and you are likely to get an earful about how refereeing can be cataclysmic. In the same World Cup, a convincing acting job by Henry against Puyol won France it’s 2-1 lead in the France-Spain game. Obviously some players, and some teams, are more guilty of this kind of things than others. But here’s the rub: they are often the most successful players and teams.

FIFA could have canceled the result of the game and ordered it played again, as they did a few years ago in the case of an Iran-Bahrain 2005 qualifying game that was bandied about as a precedent by those demanding a replay. But the furor likely instead sent FIFA representatives looking back to the 2005 decision with regret, and determined not to make the same mistake again. If teams knew that it was reasonably possible for a result to be overturned when a refereeing decision that was proven wrong had a decisive impact on the game, such appeals would obviously multiply. The Irish had pretty much an iron-clad case here, of course, but while such cases are rare they are not that rare. And there is always room for interpretation even in less clear cases. It’s well known, after all, that football fans are very good at identifying the ways in which the referee caused them to lose a game.F.I.F.A., I think, was just protecting itself, unwilling to set up an entire section devoted to hearing appeals for match replays.

While the F.F.F. can be accused of being partisan here, I’m not sure there is reason to assume the rulers of F.I.F.A. had a powerful stake in seeing France in the World Cup rather than Ireland. (Unless, that is, you believe those who claim that corporate and professional footballing interests who want to see more star players in the tournament in order to sell more shoes shape the body’s decisions). I think it is more likely that those who made this decision peered into an abyss: a place where they would regularly have to entertain requests for replays, and where people would always be able to say: but you did it for Ireland!

Then they decided they didn’t want to step off the cliff.

In the many conversations I’ve had about the handball in the past days, I’ve been reminded a bit of the incredible global conversation incited by Zidane’s “coup de boule” in 2006. With one group of friends, we jokingly decided that the handball was an act of resistance against the limited number of slots given by FIFA to Africa in the World Cup. A European team statistically has twice as much of a change of playing in South Africa as an African team, after all. There is, however, one team in Europe whose players are mostly of African descent, either from West Africa or the African diaspora in the Caribbean: France. Many of the players of the French team have, for some time, intimated that it was extremely important for them to play in 2010, not just to be in the World Cup, but to be in what is likely to be the only African World Cup for a long time to come. Maybe Henry and Gallas, both of Caribbean descent, just decided they had to get to South Africa by any means necessary? It’s hard to imagine it right now, given the low quality of play of the team in the qualifiers and the fact that Domenech, a disaster of a coach, is still in charge of the team, but maybe France will end up being a kind of representative for Africa in the tournament, as they were in the final stages of 2006 when only European teams were left playing. We’ll have to wait for December 4th to get a clearer picture of what match-ups are in store for us. While we’ve lost out on the possibility of an impassioned Ireland-England game, we can imagine we’ll be in store for a France-Cameroon of France-Algeria game. If the ghosts of empire will haunt the field in a particularly powerful way in the case of such match-ups, there will also be plenty of ambiguity there: the players of the French team whose players are largely children of the French empire, many of them children of recent African immigrants to France, and they’ll face off against teams representing former colonies many of whose members play professionally in France.

Many football fans, of course, will continue to lambast Henry,  and the event will perhaps go down in Irish footballing history as something akin to England’s loss to Argentina in 1986. Will French fans will ever find ways to celebrate the “Hand of God” of Henry the way many Argentinians do Maradona’s legendary act? Probably not. The French reaction has been largely apologetic and embarrassed — So Foot initially published a bilious and disgusted response to the whole affair as a reflection of how low France and French football has sunk — though of course French fandom and sports journalism traditionally involves an impressive amount of whining and complaining about the national team. And, as Christophe Lalo notes in So Foot, in 1986 Maradona went on, after his “Hand of God” goal, to score one of the greatest goals in the history of football, which helped some “swallow the pill” of his earlier goal. Henry, meanwhile, didn’t. Only time will tell how profoundly this incident ultimately marks his career. If he does as well this year as he did last for Barcelona, or for France next year in South Africa, many people will probably forgive and forget. Some won’t, of course, but but plenty of fans will probably come to see this as a pretty minor event in a largely spectacular career.

Unless FIFA, fans, managers and players are willing to transform football into something very different than it is today, and has been for decades, we are going to have to stick with a sport that is, often enough, totally unfair in its outcomes. What Jennifer Doyle, in discussing the Henry case, has described as the “moral ambiguity” of football is, though, a constitutive part of the sport, and indeed part of what makes it what it is — even what makes it great. Anthropologist Christian Bromberger has argued that particularly strong role the referee has in shaping destinies in football is part of what makes the sport such a powerful “terrain of interpretation,” and thus explains a significant part of the passion it arouses.

What football offers in return for the heartbreak of losing unfairly when you should have won is, however, a kind of consolation: there will always be another chance. And some day your team will probably win when it should have lost.

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