Robbie Keane carries all of the scars inflicted by Thierry Henry’s infamous hand-ball during the Republic of Ireland’s clash with France in November 2009, but he is hiding them well ahead of the first encounter between the two nations since one of the most celebrated players in world football was branded ‘Le Cheat’ for ‘conning’ the Irish out of a place at the World Cup.
“Yeah, I was there,” Keane said. “I will not think about that for one second. How long ago was it? Seven years. Fucking hell, move on.”
As the gnarled old pro he has become after earning 145 caps for his country, Keane knows there is little value in dredging up the past, but as Ireland face France in Lyon on Sunday for a place in the quarter-finals of Euro 2016, Henry’s sleight of hand dominates the build-up, with sports programmes in the host nation devoting hours of coverage to ‘that’ goal and the subsequent fall-out.
Time dulls the memory, however. Henry did not score that night – his double play with the hand provided the assist for William Gallas to bundle in the equalising goal which earned France a 1-1 draw and 2-1 aggregate play-off victory.
Gallas’s goal denied Ireland a penalty shoot-out to earn a place at the World Cup rather than rob them of victory, but the subsequent tremors were seismic.
Keane may have moved on and buried the memory of that night in Paris, but at the time, he was raging.
“They were all probably clapping hands, (Michel) Platini sitting up there on the phone to [Fifa president] Sepp Blatter, probably texting each other, delighted with the result,” Keane said at the time.
Damien Duff, the Irish winger, went further, hinting at a conspiracy between Fifa and adidas to ensure that the most high-profile nations qualified for South Africa at the expense of less powerful countries such as Ireland.
“Fifa want the big teams in the World Cup,” Duff claimed in the Stade de France tunnel, within minutes of the final whistle. “They want France in the World Cup and, it may sound silly, but they want teams sponsored by Adidas.
“Adidas sponsor the World Cup and they sponsor France. Platini has a lot of influence as well.
“Maybe we’d have had a better chance of going to the World Cup if it was sponsored by Umbro, but that’s the way the world goes at the moment.”
Raymond Domenech, the haughty France manager at the time, was dismissive of Irish injustice after the game, rejecting any suggestion of wrongdoing alongside his smirking press officer.
“I do not understand why we are being portrayed as the guilty party,” Domenech said. “After I watched it back, I can see it is a mistake by the referee (Martin Hansson)
“To me, this is the game and not cheating. I do not understand why we are being asked to apologise.
“I don’t mind people demanding Thierry have a halo and wings and admit to the foul, but it should be the same for the rest of the world.
“We are not going to commit hara-kiri because the referee made a mistake and this time in our favour.”
Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, did not share Domenech’s unrepentant view of the incident, with a call to the Irish Taoiseach, Brian Cowen, swiftly following the next day as the incident threatened to bring international shame on France.
Fifa president Sepp Blatter claimed to have received a call from John Delaney, the chief executive of the Football Association of Ireland (FAI), demanding that a 33rd place be created at the World Cup to accommodate the Irish as compensation for Henry’s contribution.
Blatter laughed out the request, before it was subsequently revealed last year during Fifa’s meltdown that the FAI had accepted €5m from the world governing body to drop a legal challenge over their failure to qualify for South Africa.
Roy Keane, now Ireland’s assistant manager, ridiculed Delaney and the Irish team in the aftermath of Henry’s handball.
Having fallen out spectacularly with Delaney in 2002, following his decision to walk out of Ireland’s pre-World Cup training camp in Saipan, Keane wasted little time in hitting back at ‘that man’ Delaney.
“What goes around comes around,” Keane said. “I think the [Irish] supporters deserve better, the manager [Giovanni Trapattoni]deserves better and probably most of the players deserve better, but I’m not sure the FAI deserve better,” he said. “I’ve been amazed at the commotion.
“Iit’s the usual FAI reaction – ‘we’ve been robbed, the honesty of the game.'”
“I’d focus on why Ireland didn’t clear it. I’d be more annoyed with my defenders and my goalkeeper than Thierry Henry.
“How can you let the ball bounce in your six-yard box? How can you let Thierry Henry get goal-side? If the ball goes into the six-yard box, where the hell is my goalkeeper?”
“Would I call it cheating? I don’t think so. Ok, he bent the rules but it happens all the time.”
Time moves on, however, and Keane is now back within the FAI fold as Martin O’Neill’s assistant, but even now, seven years on, the Henry incident stirs the emotions in Ireland as passionately as mention of the word ‘Saipan.’
“Saipan divided the nation and, in a strange way, Paris in 2009 did too,” admits Dan McDonnell, the Soccer Correspondent of the Irish Independent. “On one side, you had the officials and fans infuriated by the injustice and demanding some kind of solution to give Ireland another chance.
“On the other, you had a section of people who were embarrassed by the refusal to let it go, the calls for a replay and the short lived movement that was looking for Ireland to be added to the World Cup as a 33rd team.
“At the outset, it felt as though they were the minority but I think that changed the longer it went on.
“When it was confirmed last year that the FAI used the incident to get €5m from Fifa, the reaction veered from bemusement to embarrassment.
“It’s hard to take the high ground about 2009 when you accept that the FAI played that game in the end.
“Perhaps the game on Sunday will stir emotions that were parked years ago, but I do believe that most people have moved past Paris.
“But anybody who is still talking about Saipan will probably never change their view.”
One theme of that night in Paris, 2412 days ago, was the response of the Irish supporters – almost 20,000 of them.
The Green Army, which has enchanted France during Euro 2016, drifted away from the Stade de France downbeat and crestfallen, but without a hint of violent retribution.
Meanwhile, in the heart of Paris, Algerian supporters caused mayhem and damage across the city as they celebrated their own World Cup play-off victory over Egypt.
There was no sense of seeking revenge from the Irish that night, but despite the attempts of O’Neill and his players to dismiss 2009 as a motivating factor, the French fear it will give Ireland a cause to fight for.
“They will be out for revenge,” claimed Gallas, the goalscoring beneficiary of Henry’s handball. “I am sure that their coach will talk to them about 2009. They have not forgotten.
“But I find it regrettable the extent to which Thierry was attacked for the incident.
“It is even more of a shame that the attacks came from French media and pundits.”
Ireland will want their revenge, but they happily take it on field in Lyon, rather than off it.
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