Handball, Henry, hysteria & history

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With the World Cup just a few weeks away, citizens of the lucky 32 nations that are participating will be getting excited. In Ireland, though, things are a little different.

As has been pointed out, most notably (and repeatedly) by Roy Keane, for a long time the attitude in this country to major tournaments was that we were just happy to be there. The notion of actually competing was another thing all together.

Generally, if we managed to get past the group stages the campaign was a success, and we would be ole ole ole-ing all the way to bar before calling in sick in the morning. Luckily for our embattled economy, there won't be much of that this time around. But despite Ireland's absence, there will be plenty of people paying attention.

The World Cup does funny things to people in this country. While there has always been support for the game in Dublin, particularly on the north side of the county, it wasn't until 'Big Jack' took us the European Championships in 1988 that football gained a wider audience. A victory over England, the auld enemy, only heightened appeal, and this was buoyed by qualification for and good performances at Italia 90 and USA 94.

Drumming up support: Ireland v Italy at USA 94

Since then, when the World Cup rolls around, the geeky guy in the office who normally wouldn't know his Aguero from his Olic happily unleashes his inner Frank Skinner. The fat guy down the pub who usually turns his back on the TV when the football is on turns out to be a doctor - specialising in metatarsals no less.

And if you want to know the odds on who will be top goalscorer, first goalscorer or last goalscorer, sure all you have to do is ask the person next to you. They'll fill you in. When it comes to the World Cup, the Johnny Come Latelys and the hardcore element are, for once, united.

This time around though, there's a more sinister edge, borne at the hands of a mercurial Frenchman. Before Thierry Henry fondled the ball back in November, the Republic of Ireland football team had never been the victim of any major refereeing catastrophe in such a crucial game.

Apoplexy 1, Perspective 0
While England can point to the Hand of God in '86 or Sol Campbell's disallowed header in '98, we have generally been beaten fairly when we have lost on big occasions, so the reaction to these defeats has been fairly reserved – you know, because we were just happy to be there and all that.

The hysteria that followed the 'Hand of Henry' was something never before experienced here. The internet offered a platform for anyone and everyone to air their grievances, while the tabloids had a field day painting Henry as the villain of the piece.

Protesters outside Dublin's French embassy

Various campaigns cropped up, including one to boycott the Cuisine de France bakery company, despite the fact that they're Irish-owned, while others demanded that the Frenchman should offer an apology to the nation. Suffice to say, perspective went flying out the window in a lot of cases. Henry did actually offer an apology of sorts via his twitter page, saying, "I'm not the referee - but if I hurt someone, I'm sorry."

After the initial eruption of anger died down, we started to get on with our lives and the World Cup was put to the back of people's minds for a few months. But now, as football fever spreads across every playground, office and pub in the country, the hand of Henry is waving at us again, taunting us. The sense of injustice that lay dormant has awoken, and the people aren't happy.

A couple of weeks ago Paraguay visited Dublin for a World Cup warm up with Trappatoni's men. On the eve of their flight here, the Paraguay camp were relieved of approximately Ã¢Â‚¬100,000 worth of cash and possessions from their hotel in France. As the reporter on The Six O'Clock News quipped, "well, that's one thing we have in common - we've both been robbed by the French!" Hilarious.

The fact that Ireland won the game 2-1 has only intensified the feeling of injustice being felt by some. 'Ireland are two good - but THEY'RE going to the World Cup' screamed the back page of the Daily Star the following morning.

Holding out for a villain
What happened? How did we, as supporters, go from suffering defeats gracefully to becoming so bitter and angry at the flick of a hand? Perhaps it's down to not being the victim of such a situation in the past, or maybe it's because we've grown tired of being every other country’s happy, chatty mate, or maybe it's because, as a nation, we've taken a bit of a kicking lately.

After the boom years of the late-nineties up until a few years ago, the country finds itself on its knees. After a long night at a free bar we’ve woken up with a crippling hangover. Businesses everywhere are closing down or upping sticks, leaving thousands behind, jobless.

Families are losing sons and daughters to Australia, America and anywhere else that will employ them because they can't find work here, and there is no end in the sight to the doom and gloom that has enveloped us for almost two years now. We need somebody to blame, and by this stage we're bored of crucifying our politicians. Step forward Thierry.

"Bonsoir! Je suis votre bête noir..."

Henry was rewarded for his actions with a place in South Africa, but he's almost as much of a victim as we are. His countless medals, accolades and achievements will be forever overshadowed by that handball incident and he will be forever vilified in Ireland and in other countries, who curiously took up our case when, truth be told, it was none of their business. Yes, it was a blatant handball, but he got away with it. If Robbie Keane had done the same at the other end we wouldn't have given it a second thought.

Week after week, supporters in Ireland celebrate goals scored in dubious circumstances and heap praise on the shoulders of the 'clever' players who score them or win the penalties that result in them. When the stakes are high, and opportunity knocks, only a fool doesn't open the door. Anyway (and whisper it), would you have fancied Ireland in a penalty shootout against France?

Certain sections of the supporters have put it behind them and are looking forward to the tournament in the hope of seeing some good football and worthy winners. And some, ahead of a fairly even Euro 2012 qualifying group, have taken heart from the World Cup campaign and are looking forward expectantly. Unfortunately, others have yet to let go.

With bookmakers offering money-back specials involving France and the media gleefully fuelling the anti-French sentiment, some sections of our supporters – hardened and fair-weather alike – have found themselves united once again. But not for the love of the game: rather, by a common enemy - that dastardly Henry and his conniving teammates.

What price on an England v France final? Now that would be something. Hang on, I'll ask the guy beside me...

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