France’s qualification for the 2010 World Cup is turning out to be the biggest controversy in football since Diego Maradona’s infamous ‘hand of God’ goal against England. While in the 1986 World Cup Maradona himself had punched the ball into the goal, Thierry Henry handled the ball en route to his teammate scoring the all-important goal against Ireland to ensure qualification. The Irish have demanded a replay. On his part, Henry has admitted he handled the ball but said it was the referee’s job to spot it. Can a sportsperson be truly pleased with success achieved through underhand means? Even though he has apologised for hurting people, he has made his position clear. It is the referee’s job, he says, to notice fouls. He doesn’t think the referee did anything wrong in letting the goal stand.
However, the fact remains that Henry clearly controlled the ball with his hand. Handling the ball outside of a specific set of circumstances on a football field is a strict no-no and in most cases it is enough to get the offending player sent off, and his team punished via a penalty, or at the very least a free kick awarded to the other side. That the referee failed to notice Henry’s transgression is not a defence of the action itself, or of Henry’s disgraceful behaviour afterwards, which has resulted in such a mighty scandal that France’s president, Nicolas Sarkozy, has had to apologise on Henry’s behalf.
This isn’t the first time something like this has happened on a football field, of course. Diego Maradona famously credited the ‘Hand of God’ in his blatant and unfortunately successful attempt at cheating his way past England in the 1986 World Cup. That set a bad precedent. Now, it seems, footballers are eager to test the limit of the rules and go beyond it, just as long as they don’t get caught. And if they do, well, they can always blame the poor referee for not catching the foul play and brazen it out like Henry did. But if bad sportsmanship gets rewarded, as with Maradona, there is an incentive for others to behave badly. An example ought to be made of Henry to discourage such behaviour in future and bring ethics back into a sport that sorely needs it.