Save us from Le Hand of God!

That handball has become a huge diplomatic issue because the Irish invest way too much political hope in football.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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All us fans of the Irish football team felt well and truly sucker-punched last Wednesday night. Thierry Henry’s ‘blatant handball’ (it is now the law that every mention of his handling of the ball is preceded by the word ‘blatant’) killed off Ireland’s dreams of dribbling their way to the World Cup in South Africa in 2010 (judge the video for yourself below). We were angry. We expressed our anger on Facebook and Twitter. Some fans even sent text messages to each other using a four-letter f-word to describe Henry. (No, not the swear word; the other one, which comes before ‘legs’ to describe a French delicacy and which once featured prominently in a Paul McCartney song.)

Fair enough. All is fair in love and football, even the use of that f-word. But I can’t be the only Irish fan now tiring of the obsession with ‘Le Hand of God’. L’Affaire Henry has morphed from a moment of pure and implacable anger for fans into a full-blown diplomatic incident, in which Henry is being held responsible, not only for dashing Ireland’s hopes of getting to the World Cup, but also for slowing Ireland’s economic recovery and damaging its national psyche. You could be forgiven for thinking that his really is ‘Le Hand of God’, passing harsh judgement against the Irish people.

L’Affaire Henry has exposed two things: first, that the smooth-talking, Gillette-advertising Frenchman is a bit of a cheating bastard; and second, that Irish politicians and commentators invest way, way too much meaning and hope into the national football team, to the extent that one man, with two taps of a ball, can be said to have hit Ireland – the country, that is – where it hurts. I’m far more worried about this second revelation than I am about the first: after all, cheating in football is fairly normal, whereas looking to football to revive a country’s fortunes is not.

L’Affaire Henry has been turned into super-simplistic morality tale, and as with all morality tales it has involved a severe warping of the truth in order to squeeze it into the straitjacket of moral outrage. Sports writers have employed the kind of terminology usually reserved for the political pages. The Irish were ‘denied justice’ in a ‘titanic struggle’, said a writer for the Irish News, as if the events in that stadium in Paris had been a replay of Bloody Sunday (the 1920 version). The Irish played with ‘remarkable freedom’, shaking off their ‘repressive midfield chains’ and ‘bolting forward at every opportunity’ (1).

The Irish have been described in borderline sexual language, too: Liam Lawrence is a ‘blonde bombshell’; the team ‘teased and taunted’ and ‘danced’ (2). On the other side, the French were ‘sneering’ and ‘narcissistic’ (3). The beginning of many a morality tale – think Red Riding Hood; think Twilight – is the idea of virginal innocence threatened by evil outsiders, and so it is with L’Affaire Henry. Quite why the Irish are so willing to have themselves labelled as dancing blondes manhandled by evil Frenchmen – and also as ‘warm’, ‘plucky’ and ‘brave’, to pick some of the other patronising language used to describe these 11 men – is beyond me.

Yet the idea that Henry’s hand alone cost Ireland its rightful place in the World Cup is pure fantasy. The decisive factor on Wednesday night is that Ireland lost (on aggregate) rather than that France won. Yes, Ireland had a pretty good first half and Robbie Keane’s goal in the 33rd minute was a paragon of footballing precision. But it was downhill from there. The blonde bombshell had already missed an open goal in the first half, and in the second half both Keane and Damien Duff duffed Ireland’s chances of scoring again.

As Matthew Norman argued in the London Evening Standard, the Irish had been ‘offered a lavish gift by the gods of football and they spurned it’. For all the ‘apparent randomness’ of That Incident, says Norman, we all knew from at least the start of the second half ‘how it must end’: with Ireland’s defeat (4). They’d lost their early flair. Blaming it all on Le Hand of God suggests that some supernatural being forced Ireland to its knees. Ireland’s own failures are neatly and fully projected on to Henry’s extraordinary hand, which is now depicted as supersized in various doctored photographs doing the rounds on the internet. In this sense, L’Affaire Henry does echo England’s ‘Hand of God’ experience in 1986 – not because Maradona and Henry are both evil foreign bastards, but because the England team also papered over their own weaknesses by investing Maradona’s hand with magical powers.

But there’s an important difference. If the Hand of God is seen as having ruined England’s footballing chances in 1986, Le Hand of God is seen as doing Ireland over in economic and political terms, too. An expert at London’s Centre for Economics and Business Research reckons ‘the Irish economy will lose out to the tune of £100million’ as a result of being kicked out of the World Cup running (5). Irish pundits claim that Henry and FIFA (by refusing to hold a rematch) have denied Ireland the opportunity to go through the same kind of economic rising it experienced during the 1990 and 1994 World Cups, as if the Celtic Tiger years were entirely football-related (6).

A British economic expert says the Irish nation might be psychologically damaged: ‘Psychologically and economically, qualifying would have been far more important to Ireland [than to France].’ (7) This echoes the football-cum-political commentators who have written about the Henry-induced ‘wound that will never heal’ in Ireland’s ‘psyche’ (8). Experts have talked about the ‘psychic shock’ delivered to Ireland and claim there is a ‘danger the Irish people could give into depression and a kind of paralysis’ (9).

This is crazy. But it’s also the logical conclusion to Ireland’s use of football since the early 1990s to reinvent itself and its national destiny. It’s impossible to overstate how important the national team has become for national politics. In 1990 in particular, when Ireland got to the World Cup quarter-finals, and in 1994, when they got to the final 16, all manner of political and economic hopes were projected on to the team. Then President Mary Robinson’s redefinition of Ireland as a state of mind rather than a state became bound up with football, with one academic celebrating the fact that the Irish team had so many British-born players, which apparently ‘reflected the postmodern condition of Ireland… whereby Irishness cannot be conveniently restricted to a single island’ (10).

Others argued that the shift from Gaelic sports (traditional, country-based) to soccer (modern, internationally focused) showed that Ireland had ‘matured’ and ‘finally become European’ (11). Football was a safe, post-conflict form of nationalism, argued Fintan O’Toole in 1994, allowing Irish people to ‘celebrate their identity without being encumbered by the dark complications of the North’ (this theory was cruelly shot down during the Loughinisland massacre of June 1994, when six Northern Irish Catholics watching the World Cup in a bar were murdered by loyalist gunmen). When Ireland got knocked out in the final 16 in the 2002 World Cup, they were welcomed back to Dublin by 100,000 people, including Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and President Mary McAleese, as if they had won the cup and conquered the world (12).

From the early 1990s onwards, post-nationalist, post-Catholic, post-traditional Ireland has struggled to redefine itself. And football – non-violent, cross-cultural and, most importantly, popular – seemed to provide the perfect focus for redefining Irish identity and explaining Ireland’s strange and shortlived economic upturn. It all became about Ireland rediscovering its ‘confidence’ and ‘self-esteem’, as if feeling good about a game of footie really might provide a nation with a much-needed new purpose in life. It is this transformation of football into, er, a political football which explains the mad, bad and dangerous overreaction to L’Affaire Henry: the Frenchman, you see, has not only knocked a football team out of a competition; he has also rained on Ireland’s only remaining sense of national mission.

More than anything, the idea of ‘Le Hand of God’ crushing Ireland speaks to Ireland’s own sense of flimsiness, of post-nationalist discombobulation; it reveals Ireland’s existential fear of being pushed around by strange, unknowable, massive-handed forces beyond its control. All of which means that Roy Keane’s very wise words about L’Affaire Henry – ‘get over it’ – won’t be enough to put this incident to bed.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. His satire on the green movement – Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas – is published by Hodder & Stoughton. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).) This is an edited version of an article that was first published by the Irish online magazine, forth

Previously on spiked

Duleep Allirajah recounted, in the style of The Damned United, the story of how Thierry Henry jetted off to Barcelona and discussed Diego Maradona’s ‘Hand of God’. Brendan O’Neill questioned the logic of expecting George Best to save the peace process. Mick Hume considered the strange case of l’affaire Zidane, and reflected on how football has gone from being viewed as a slum sport to a cross between religion, rock‘n’roll and royalty. Or read more at spiked issue Sport.

(1) Controversial Gallas strike ends Ireland’s World Cup hopes, Irish News, 19 November 2009

(2) Controversial Gallas strike ends Ireland’s World Cup hopes, Irish News, 19 November 2009

(3) Controversial Gallas strike ends Ireland’s World Cup hopes, Irish News, 19 November 2009

(4) Outcome inevitable after Robbie Keane spurns his gift, London Evening Standard, 19 November 2009

(5) Henry’s £1bn cash in hand, Sun, 20 November 2009

(6) This is what Thierry Henry’s handball did to us…, Observer, 22 November 2009

(7) Henry’s £1bn cash in hand, Sun, 20 November 2009

(8) Controversial Gallas strike ends Ireland’s World Cup hopes, Irish News, 19 November 2009

(9) How to defeat ‘Les Bleus’ blues, Irish Independent, 21 November 2009

(10) Cited in Football: A Sociology of the Global Game, Richard Giulianotti, Wiley-Blackwell, 1999

(11) Cited in Football: A Sociology of the Global Game, Richard Giulianotti, Wiley-Blackwell, 1999

(12) See Pluck off, by Brendan O’Neill, 19 June 2002

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Topics Politics


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