Stephen Eddie is a neutral football fan and freelance journalist currently working in London. Visit his blog at Pulling Shapes.
David Ngog has a lot to thank Thierry Henry for, and not just the obvious influence in playing style as demonstrated by his goal against Manchester United. If we remember just two weeks ago, Ngog was the one being called cheat in capital letters, who apparently represented everything that is wrong about the ‘modern game’. Of all the major columnists and pundits who commented on Henry’s handball assist against Ireland, only Martin Samuel of the Daily Mail appeared capable of remembering any example of cheating before Henry and rightly reminded us of Ngog’s dive to win a penalty against Birmingham.
Ngog was branded a cheat but pundits mostly said he’d feel “embarrassed” about the dive – nothing compared to the press Henry received last week. On Thursday and Friday some newspapers had the story on its front and back pages, calling the incident the ‘Hand of Frog’ and ‘Hand of Gaul’ – headlines charged up by a week of anti-European stories – while Henry was called repulsive and the handball ‘sickening’. That’s the kind of language normally reserved for stories about criminals not football matches. Former Wigan striker Marlon King – currently serving an 18-month prison sentence for ABH and sexual assault – got lighter treatment and less coverage.
Even keeping to incidents on the pitch, there has been worse behaviour than Henry’s handball. The France captain’s former Arsenal teammate Emmanuel Adebayor took his studs to Robin van Persie’s face when Manchester City played Arsenal at Eastlands this season. Adebayor rightly served a three-match ban but I don’t recall receiving the character assassination than Henry has. Michael Calvin in the Mirror said Henry “has been exposed as manipulative and insincere”, while Gavin Brown in the Metro wrote that Henry lacks credibility and is an ineffective player. This would be the ineffective Henry of Barcelona who’s scored or set up 69 goals in 96 games for the Spanish and European champions. The ineffective Henry of France who’s scored more goals for his country than any player has for England. The ineffective, repulsive, cheating Henry who does promotion work for Unicef and launched the 2005 Stand Up, Speak Up anti-racism campaign with Nike (remember those black and white rubber wristbands?). It would be a great shame if Barcelona came to England for a Champions League game and Henry’s contribution to football England was forgotten and replaced by boos.
While the majority of comments on Henry’s handball were self-righteous, ‘I-would-have-owned-up’ nonsense, few were as hypocritical as Tony Cascarino’s in The Times. The former Ireland striker wrote: “Don’t think I’m ducking the question when I say that it would never have been an issue for me – because I wasn’t a cheat… it would never have occurred to me to stick out my hand and guide it back into my control. I wasn’t that devious.” Cascarino found out he didn’t qualify to play for the Irish national team in 1996 but did not retire from international football until 1999 or reveal the fact until the publication of his autobiography in 2005, when he wrote: “I was a fraud. A fake Irishman.”
Before putting Henry’s name next to ‘cheat’ in the dictionary or saying Fifa should sanction the FAI’s desired replay of France v Ireland – despite it requiring a overhauling of Fifa laws and setting a ridiculous precedent (can you imagine how many appeals for replays would be lodged by Premier League managers if that was allowed?) – we should remember the behaviour of players and fans of our own teams. Ngog’s dive against Birmingham was just as much an attempt to gain unfair advantage for his team, while Steven ‘he’s big and he’s fucking hard’ Gerrard has also fallen over rather easily in the past (incidents versus Sheffield United and Aston Villa in 2007 come to mind). Every team has players that cheat and every player is capable of cheating, but it is the repeat offenders that should be brought to task and it’s difficult to call Henry one of those.
Equally, before we in the stands, pubs and armchairs get all high and mighty, Henry’s behaviour was certainly not worse than that of some fans this year: Arsenal fans aiming a chair at Adebayor injured a City of Manchester Stadium steward; Rangers are struggling to deal with a loud minority of travelling trouble-makers; groups of Manchester United and Liverpool supporters still chant about the most tragic moments in each other’s history; and Fifa are investigating after large rocks were thrown through the windows of the Algerian team bus in Cairo last Wednesday. Egypt has threatened to withdraw from international football for two years and government officials have been withdrawn from both countries following the violence at both legs of the playoff.
Thierry Henry cheating to qualify for the World Cup is wrong but the world of football’s selective memory and lack of perspective is worse.