Or, "How The Black Charlie Brown Stole A World Cup Spot"
The governing body for European soccer, UEFA, rewards its allocated World Cup spots by dividing the fifty three countries into home-and-away groups of five or six, taking care to make sure that traditional powers like Italy, Germany, France, and Spain are not put in the same group. Group winners go straight to the cup. A second-place team has to win a home-and-away playoff against another runner-up to earn a spot.
The playoff between France and Ireland was set up when the Irish, a perennial WC bubble team, finished second to Italy as expected in their qualifying group, whereas the historically very good but inconsistent French were upset by Serbia in theirs.
The French were favored from the moment the match was set up, and looked to be on cruise control after winning the first game in Dublin 1-0. But the Irish fought hard in Paris to earn an identical 1-0 away win and force overtime.
It was there that Thierry Henry, who has been one of the games best for as long as he's been playing and had been generally regarded as a decent guy, commited a blatant and obviously intentional handball to control a free-kick that otherwise would have gone out of bounds and allowed the Irish to boot it out of their danger zone. Instead Henry was able to use his illegal control to flip the ball to teammate William Gallas who kicked the winning goal.
Henry to his credit admitted to handling the ball after the game, even saying in effect that the referee should have called the foul if he had only caught him, but he didn't so yay for us. This could possibly spare him the life-long enmity that the English-speaking world has for Diego Maradona, who was maddingly coy after the 'hand of God' incident in 1986. Probably not though. Henry insists that the handball was accidental, and the video makes it clear that it was a perfectly conscious act of motor control. And then there is the fact that it usually takes the Irish about a thousand years or so to forgive historical wrongs. We can be assured that the next time Henry's club team, Barcelona, gets matched up in the Champions League against a team with strong Irish support, such as Man U or Celtic, extreme nastiness will ensue.
While the Sweedish referee was not directly next to Henry when the incident occured, he was nearby and looking in the general area when it happened, and the fact that he allowed such an obvious foul to determine who did and who didn't go to the World Cup is unacceptable. There have been some internet rumblings about a conspiracy. Some people are convinced that the ref was instructed by FIFA or UEFA to make sure that the team representing the larger and more populous France made it into the cup and brought their television revenue with them. This is I suppose possible but not likely. The gap in size and international clout between Russia and Slovenia is much greater after all, but that didn't stop the Fighting Gulags from going down. It's more likely that the ref was half-consciously influenced by eighty thousand home fans proclaiming their side to be the good guys, and this is something that happens in every sport. It's a shame but human nature is what it is.
As someone with a hint of Irish in my genes I myself am slightly pissed, but mainly because team USA was busy getting torn apart in a friendly at the same time Ireland vs. France was going down and so American audiences were denied the chance to see an outstanding game. If UEFA had the same delusions about winning over the US that the NFL has about finding an obvious in Europe, they would have made sure that France vs. Ireland and USA's debacle at Denmark would have been in different time slots. The matchup between two Western European cultural cousins was, after all, the game that held the most interest for U.S soccer fans. Instead the only qualifier we were treated to was the terribly grim affair between Ukraine and Greece.
It reminds me of another great sporting moment that I missed, the 'Janet Jackson shows her tit' incident from the Super Bowl halftime show a few years back. I was attending a SB party where everyone else had started drinking three hours before the game so that I was the only one still awake by the time halftime came along. I remember the halftime show as being insufferably awful, so much so that when Janet busted out "Rhythm Nation" it was like hearing Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock by comparision. At the end of the show I had my head buried in my hands to make the awfulness disappear and the only hint I got that something interesting had happened was the sleepy mouth-agape look I saw on this guy named Pete from accross the room. The controversy that followed left me quite uncomfortable, like I was a political exile cut off from the world, and I've made a point to be vicariously in the thick of things via the internet ever since. So here I am.