Anyway, England qualified with a near-perfect record in the group and so avoided the play-offs between teams who had equal points at the top of the groups. These play-offs were, controversially, seeded. This meant that the higher ranked teams that had made it to this stage (Portugal, Greece, Russia and, as will become pertinent to the story, France) would avoid each other and so will play the lower ranked teams of Ukraine, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Republic of Ireland. The theory being that the higher-ranked teams (and, in most cases, the best players) would go to the World Cup Finals thus ensuring the most high-profile and exciting tournament possible - what everybody should want. I agree with the system. It sucks for the lower-ranked teams but, anybody thinking it should be easy to reach the World Cup Finals is dreaming. You'll have to beat good teams when you're there and you should have to beat good teams to get there. In my opinion.
These were the fixtures -
- Russia v Slovenia
- Greece v Ukraine
- Portugal v Bosnia and Herzegovina
- Republic of Ireland v France
Ah, the luck of the Irish, eh? You've got to feel bad for them, I suppose. Here's what happened. The first leg, in Ireland, went 1-0 to the French and it looked like it was all over for Ireland. From what I've seen of the game they didn't play well and nobody really gave them a chance of going to the Stade de France - a ground where France have won 80% of their games - and getting a victory. The game came around the Irish were terrific. They outplayed the French on their own soil, wanted it more and were rewarded with a goal from The World's Most Irish Man (Robbie Keane). The game looked like it was heading for penalties and in the last few minutes of the second half Ireland were pinned back in their half defending the French onslaught. And, then this happened.
It's a blatant handball. The ball bounces in the 6-yard box (and Roy Keane was right, by the way, that should never have happened) hits Thierry Henry's forearm and begins to bounce harmlessly out of play, before Henry taps it down to his feet with his hand and prods it across goal for Gallas to score the winning goal. It happens so quickly that it is hard to notice until a few watches of the clip, but it definitely does. Henry cheated, it led directly to a goal and because of that Ireland will not be going to the World Cup.
The reaction to this has been, quite predictably, one of outrage. And, again predictably, massively out of proportion. I hate cheating on the football pitch. It angers me. To see Henry celebrating that goal makes me feel sick (but, then again, seeing Thierry Henry celebrate anything has always made me feel sick - I've never liked him) and I fully support the reasonable points that have been brought up in the wake of this dispute. There is, perhaps, room for another official on each goal line. If there was one at the game, it is much more likely the handball would have been given. I agree that the officials involved in this game should be banned, as failing to spot such a blatant offence is gross misconduct. I also agree that Henry should not have stuck his hand out to cheat and that he now, deservedly, will go down as one of the world's great football cheats. Like this gentleman.
However, I do not agree that there should be a video referee like in Rugby. "Oh, but it works so well in Rugby, we should have it in football". NO! For a start rugby is boring as hell and should not be held up as a sport we're inclined to copy and secondly, human error is a part of football and to take it away would sterilise the game beyond belief. And to ask for the game to be replayed? The Irish FA have lost so much credibility with this request that my sympathy for them has almost dissipated. If the game were to be replayed, we would be plunged into absolute chaos and it would set a precedent that would ruin football as a concept for ever more. Thierry Henry has to live with the knowledge that his country have qualified for the World Cup because he cheated. I'm certain that if he had the chance to, he would go back, not handle it and allow the game to run to extra time or penalties when the French would have probably won anyway. However, going back is not an option (in fact, is about as likely as the game being replayed) and the Irish need to get over it. Move on. Maintain the dignity you deserve after putting on a valiant display in France. The fact of the matter remains that had you won more games in the group stage, then the play-off would have been unnecessary. As it is, you will be watching the World Cup with a strange disconnection. Just as us Englishmen had to watch the 2008 Euros.
And besides, all that's really happened is the disappointment has been brought forward about 7 months, right?
See you in South Africa, Frenchy!