Wednesday, November 18, 2009

When Irish eyes are smarting

Ireland's exit was the stuff of nightmares if, like me, you have green blood coursing through your veins, or just cheer the underdog.

Thierry Henry of all people...I've met him twice away from football and he is unfailingly charming off-field as he is scintillating on. But cross the white line when the stakes are as high as a place in the World Cup finals and private pleasantries evaporate in the mind of the competitor. When was the last time you saw a man stop play to announce he had cheated? Henry's frank post-match corroboration confirms FIFA are in a premier pickle over video technology, while his "I'm not the referee" excuse implies the viveza (craftiness) Latin players are renowned for is fair game. Thanks for being honest, but don't say the unsayable...As Bobby Robson charitably said about the Hand of God, 'Don't blame the player, blame the referee, because players will try things'.

Ironically, an Irish win would have pleased many a French fan as it would have spelt the end of the unloved Raymond Domenech, whose cringeworthy on-air proposal to his girlfriend after France had been knocked-out of Euro 2008 still grates. Ditto his tactical gaffes, weak leadership, bizarre interest in astrology and melodramatic comments such as "In the end I will be God or the Devil". Chuckled at last week in public by his players, Domenech has few fans in France. Check out the Stade de France's reaction here at 1:29. For another seven months at least, Les Bleus have a leader few of them respect.

That said, Domenech's pack still has some real aces in it, and had Franck Ribery been fit for the play-offs, Ireland might have been torn apart. Domenech was ridiculed in 2006 too, and came within a Zidane headbutt of snatching at the ultimate prize. But we could do without his touchline vaudeville towards the end of tonight's game, whistling and flailing his arms at the referee like Alex Ferguson in an effort to get the game over. This sort of gamesmanship reminded me of Didier Deschamps, who disgraced his role as France's World Cup-winning skipper in 1998 by continually running to the ref whenever a colleague of his was fouled, brandishing an invisible yellow card in the official's face.

Better to lose with honor than to win with none. But good luck to France in South Africa. And let's hope football has not seen the last of the ever-ebullient Trap.

....Much as I would have liked to see Bosnia beat Portugal, it is also a loss to the World Cup if the world's best players do not qualify to play in it, George Best & Alfredo di Stefano for instance. Or Eric Cantona.

.... Slovenia impressed me in the group stage against England, so their triumph over Russia was no huge shock. Guus Hiddink's team, as an expert on Eastern European football opined to me last week, are just not the force their emphatic win over Holland last summer had suggested.

....Greece must do better than last time, their dismal showing at USA '94. Otto Rehhagel is a miracle worker all right, given his country were hopeless in the 2005 Confederations Cup and Euro 2008, failed to make it to Germany 2006 and won Euro 2004 with the most mind-numbing soccer played by the winners of a major tournament in living memory.

Further afield, it is nice to see Algeria back for the first time since 1986, four years after their memorable win over West Germany. Their slug fest with Egypt (literally) at the end of the qualifiers was so dramatic a movie should be made about it.

And New Zealand's return after a 27-year absence is a small step towards the Beautiful Game challenging rugby union's grip on Kiwi hearts. But the day San Siro will be full to watch the All-Whites, as it was for the All-Blacks this weekend in Milan, is still the stuff of dreams.

- Sean O'Conor, London

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