When the headline writers are forced to turn their might to the back pages (Hand Gaul – The Independent; French Nickers – Daily Mirror; Henry’s Pat – I made that one up) you know something significant has happened in the world of sport. Poor old Ireland. Sadly I can but offer commiserations, to Ireland; to poor old Damien Duff, who played gloriously and made anyone over 30 feel justified to dream on a little more; and lastly to you, my poor old Irish friends, who I dare say smashed your plasma screens over the backs of your sofas.
And then, with a moment of calm reflection that can be afforded someone who is neither French nor Irish, it occurred to me there were several aspects that were surprisingly impressive in all this.
Firstly I was impressed with the earnestness with which Henry admitted his handball, saying, well I looked up and the ref didn’t blow, so that’s that. (I paraphrase, of course.) I mean, that shows a comfortable disregard for sporting integrity. He might as well have said, hey, if stabbing a baby means France goes to the World Cup, bof! passe moi le bebe. Even Maradona had the decency to claim divine intervention and shift at least some of the responsibility.
I was also impressed with the way the Irish kept their cool both immediately after the incident and once the final whistle was blown. Naturally, there were some words and a few gestures exchanged with the ref, but as Mark Lawrenson said on Radio 5, there were no “Drogba moments”. It’s nice when you coin a phrase, and I hope the expression “to do a drog” can catch on. (But it only counts if the player spacking out is wearing flip-flops at the time.) All credit to them I say, when Argentina were knocked out by Germany in the last World Cup, Maxi Rodriguez lamped Bastian Schweinsteiger in the back of the head. No reason, he was just upset. Frankly the England television viewer couldn’t ask for much more.
But tempers flare at times like these and Ireland should be applauded for remaining relatively passive. I have to say I hadn’t realised how eager I’d been for them to win, I think, upon reflection, because most of the French squad seem to have enjoyed a few too many good times of late and it was about time for a reality check.
Lastly, I was impressed with the speed with which the incident was posted on YouTube. As you might have guessed by my Lawro quotation earlier, my lack of Sky TV forced me to listen to the game on Radio 5, and so I had to go by its hysterical, jingoistic and often inappropriately xenophobic commentary. I think at one point Lawrenson claimed that he wasn’t surprised by the French lack of effort because the French were like that: lazy, then in an effort to cover his tracks he added, as a nation I mean. Solid gold BBC.
Anyway, there was a snippet of the handball, complete with American commentary, up and online within minutes of the incident and I was able to freeze frame it from the comfort of my own sofa. So if I can do that, with a video that has bounced across the Atlantic twice, then what’s the deal with FIFA and replays?
The old argument is that replays will slow the game down, but we already know that every yellow card (30 seconds), substitution (30 seconds) and contended decision (referee’s discretion) slows the fluidity of the game immeasurably. We’re currently in a situation where matches are regularly delayed by 7 or 8 minutes, most of which is due to prolonged arguments with the referee about contentious issues. In any case, on average the ball is in play for only 60 minutes of a 90 minute game, so what’s the big deal with losing a bit of time here and there anyway? Are there not bigger fish to fry than lost time?
It is said that Scotland’s failure to qualify for the World Cup has cost them £100m, which must be reflected Ireland’s case when you consider the lost sale of Irish booze, not to mention plasma screens and sofa backs. Is it any wonder then that the Irish government has asked for a replay? It won’t change anything, of course, except perhaps in the long run where, because of such political protests, South Africa 2010 may be recognised as the last World Cup without TV replays.