Ever heard of "The Football War"? In 1969 El Salvador and Honduras played each other in a play-off to decide who qualifed for the Mexico World Cup the following summer. A two leg match between the teams resulted in two home wins (back then aggregate scores weren't used) where the visiting sides were intimidated and threatened by home fans, while there were plenty of reports of attacks on Honduran citizens living in El Salvador and vice versa. In the end, El Salvador qualifed for the World Cup by winning a playoff after extra-time in Mexico, a neutral venue. But with this helping fuel extreme tensions between the two nations, the two countries were at arms within a fortnight. The war lasted only four days, but resulted in an estimated 4,000 deaths, population displacement on a horrific scale, and absolutely no benefit whatsoever to either country.
El Salvador didn't even get out of the group stage at the World Cup.
I was reminded of this in light of Hand of God II/Hand of Henry/Le Hand of God/whatever cheap play on words you prefer which refers to a combination of France, Thierry Henry, and the parallels with a certain Argentinian genius-turned-cheating scumbag, since, 24 hours later, it seems to be turning into a teensy bit of an international incident. I began fantasizing about an ultimatum from the Taoseach to the Elysees Palace, with the Irish demanding a replay of the match along with the immediate extradition of Monsieur Henry for execution (presumably by drowning him in Guinness). A refusal to comply could lead to an immediate air strike of Clover Bombs, an assault by an elite leprechaun commando unit, and chemical attacks on the French population through the poisoning of the snail and frog populace, and the destruction of their annual garlic crop.
But then I realized that, apart from the above daydream being hugely stereotypical, and also a bit racist, countries really have gone to war after football matches, and it is not really very funny after all.
But I digress, for the objective of this blogpost is to provide my tuppence worth on the Henry saga. And let's get an important thing out of the way first. If that had been a Scotsman who hand handballed, and the resultant goal had put us in the finals, we would have grinned awkwardly, looked a bit sheepish, and then demanded our place at the World Cup. Wouldn't we?
That doesn't mean that a storm shouldn't be rattled up over this, though. Henry himself hasn't done himself, France or the men in charge any favours by effectively admitting to deliberate handball. Instead of saying "It was accidental, honest", which would be awfully difficult to disprove, he has basically told the world "cheating is okay until it gets caught". That's a terrible thought at the best of times, but in a situation with such a profound outcome - financially as well as in terms of glory, it's downright scandalous. The world knows that Thierry Henry cheated, and that France have fraudulently earned a place in the World Cup at the expense of Ireland.
What will the fallout be? It's unlikely to be nuclear, simply because FIFA don't have the guts at the best of times and we all know, through their outrageous decision to seed the playoffs, that they were willing to do everything in their power to get France to South Africa. But it's nice, like with the recent diving episodes, that a storm is being cooked up, and that even French politicians are embarassed by it. But there's more chance of me getting a Scotland cap than there is of the Irish getting a second chance at qualification.
Anyway, I will now, like an awful lot of other fans, be adopting a support-anyone-against-France plan in June, and hoping that gallic luck deserts them next time. I wonder whether, today, Monsieur Henry woke up and thought "wish I'd let it go out for a goal kick and taken my chances in a shootout".