Imagine a world in which Republic of Ireland’s most recent World Cup memory is no longer Roy Keane and “stick it up yer b*llocks”. How about one in which France never again won the World Cup after Zinedine Zidane’s heroics in 1998? Or perhaps one in which the same player bouncing his bald bonce off Marco Materazzi would be the enduring memory of Les Bleus in the 21st century, rather than their 2018 triumph? Most importantly when it comes to picturing a world without Thierry Henry’s controversial handball in Saint-Denis in 2009 is imagining what would have happened if the Republic of Ireland had gone to the 2010 World Cup.
On the 14th anniversary of the incident, it is once again time to address the Thierry Henry-sized elephant in the room. It is a moment of bitterness between the two footballing nations that lingers to this day. Henry has apologised but nothing he says is able to give Ireland back what they lost.
So what did they lose? Well a World Cup is something that, for players from many nations, never comes around at all. Icons like George Best and George Weah never played at the tournament, despite being among the finest players of their generation. Given the fact Ireland had not qualified for a World Cup since 2002, and have yet to do so again, an entire generation of players missed out on their chance in 2010.
The other aspect that The Boys in Green missed out on was a genuine chance to make an impact in South Africa, host nation of the 2010 tournament. Their side was awash with quality at the time. Robbie Keane, who would go on to become his country’s record-scorer, was banging in goals for fun. Damien Duff and John O’Shea brought Premier League-winning quality. Shay Given and Kevin Kilbane added poise and experience. Nobody for one second thought this team would win the whole shebang, but there’s no reason Ireland couldn’t have turned some heads.
That alternative future went up in smoke during the second leg of France and Ireland’s World Cup qualification play-off in 2009. The first leg had seen France edge out a 1-0 win at Croke Park. Stade de France hosted the second, where Keane gave the Republic of Ireland an unlikely lead. The match remained 1-0 after 90 minutes, with the aggregate score of 1-1 taking the game to extra time.
A Florent Malouda free kick in extra time found Henry to the left of Given’s goal. In order to stop the ball going out of play, the Arsenal legend steadied it with his hand not once, but twice. He then fired it across goal, where the ball was turned in by William Gallas. Henry has since said he regrets both the incident and his reaction, but at the time he went haring up the touchline screaming in joyous celebration. The Republic of Ireland saw their World Cup dream die. It has yet to be reignited.
Instead, Ireland’s abiding World Cup memory of the modern era remains Roy Keane and Mick McCarthy’s bust-up in 2002. The incident, which stemmed from Keane’s complaints over poor facilities, saw the Manchester United midfielder leave the squad and return home. The debacle, which absurdly ended with the most-watched dog walk of all time as Keane was followed by the press while taking his canine companion Trigger for a walk, was a sad footnote to Ireland’s World Cup history.
But things would also be very different for French football had Henry not intervened, however illegally. Like Ireland, France’s last tournament at that stage was one marred by infamy. Zinedine Zidane was sent off in the final of the 2006 World Cup for headbutting Marco Materazzi in the chest as his side lost to Italy. It would be the iconic midfielder’s final act as a professional footballer. If Ireland had qualified for the 2010 competition instead of France, it would have been a memory that endured even longer.
What of the tournament that followed for France? It felt like Les Bleus were almost karmically punished for their ill-gotten gains when they actually reached South Africa. A profound disconnect between the team and their national press in France spilled over into the tournament. The French Football Federation (FFF) had already revealed beforehand that manager Raymond Domenech would be let go after the tournament. What followed would put him out of a job for a decade.
Striker Nicolas Anelka unleashed a string of expletives as he delivered a staggering criticism of the head coach as France were losing to Mexico. Like Keane before him, Anelka was sent home for his insolence. The following day saw captain Patrice Evra in a verbal bust-up with one of the coaching staff.
The squad protested, refusing to train due to Anelka’s dismissal. Members of the FFF resigned. The French Sports Minister delivered a speech to the players that reduced some members of the squad to tears. It was bedlam unlike almost anything seen at a World Cup.
Were it not for Henry’s errant digits, that national scandal is avoided. Domenech perhaps does not go ten years without a job. Sure, not qualifying for the World Cup would have looked bad on his CV, but managers have recovered from worse than that. The fact he steered France to the 2006 final would likely have offset that in the eyes of many suitors. But the revolt that happened under his leadership was a black eye for French football, one that kept him out of the game for a decade.
Would France have still won the 2018 World Cup without their implosion eight years earlier? We’ll never know for sure. But often an all-time low is a catalyst for change. Much of that 2010 squad were discarded after the tournament. The generation that came in in their stead would take France back to the top of the mountain. While Henry’s handball indirectly allowed French football’s darkest moment, it may also have set a course to one of its brightest.
The Stade de France handball stands as one of the most controversial incidents in 21st century football. On closer inspection, it also begat another with the South Africa debacle that France endured. Irish fans would argue Les Bleus got their just desserts. But those same supporters would also argue they have never got what’s coming to them. A generation of fans won’t feel like justice has been done until the Republic of Ireland reach another World Cup.
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